Whaling action was risky business
Australia took a "win-at-all-costs approach" when taking Japan to court over whaling says Mick McIntyre, executive director of the whale conservation group Whales Alive.PT2M27S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-35vjw 620 349 April 1, 2014
Success has a thousand fathers, so it is hardly surprising that both sides of Australian politics welcomed Monday's International Court of Justice ruling that Japan's ''scientific'' whaling program in the Southern Ocean was not so scientific at all.
It was always a ridiculous justification – what other study involves the annual systematic killing of the subject species?
But ridiculous or not, the path of international litigation was a serious escalation by Australia with known risks. Success was anything but guaranteed, making the decision to accept the costs of dragging one of Australia's most important commercial and strategic partners to the ICJ a particularly brave one.
Former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus who argued the case against Japanese whaling at the ICJ. Photo: Andrew Meares
The now retired former environment minister, Peter Garrett, argued the case in cabinet to make the application. He deserves much of the credit. Other names such as Kevin Rudd, and Stephen Smith were also important as was the current environment minister, Greg Hunt on the Liberal side.
It was Hunt's public advocacy that gently pulled the Coalition into line when his leader, Tony Abbott favoured a softly, softly approach.
And there was Labor's Mark Dreyfus QC, attorney-general for the last eight months before the election, who took the case so seriously he even argued himself before the ICJ at the Hague.
Political bipartisanship in matters environmental has too often eluded this country in recent years, but the whaling agreement shows it can be a powerful force.
Nonetheless, Abbott's summation in 2010 probably spoke to widespread concerns in his constituency and in the business community: ''This is Kevin Rudd's policy, not the Coalition's policy. We don't like whaling. We would like the Japanese to stop,'' he said.
''On the other hand, we don't want to needlessly antagonise our most important trading partner, a fellow democracy, an ally.''
The risks of international legal action were obvious, ranging from failure – potentially devastating for the campaign against whaling because it would have provided an unappealable legal basis for the practice – through to the possibility of serious damage to the bilateral relationship.
Australia is in the final stages of delicate, and necessarily tough Free Trade Agreement negotiations, and is desperate to sign the deal.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrives in Tokyo this very weekend, which makes the timing of the ICJ ruling all the more intriguing.
The questions are: Will the whaling outcome prove to be a spanner in the works? Will the conservative LDP Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, feel domestic pressure to defend tarnished Japanese honour through some kind of push back at Australia?
While the ruling is confronting for the Japanese, both sides have done well until now to quarantine the dispute, successfully insulating ill-feeling from broader aspects of the bilateral relationship.
In recent days, Abbott has confirmed to Japanese media the major concession of removing import tariffs on Japanese cars and manufactured goods, in return for an easing of restrictions on Australian farm products selling into Japan – most notably a proposed halving of 38.5 per cent import mark-up on beef.
It emblematic of the immense effort going into Canberra-Tokyo relations, since Abbott described Japan, while in Indonesia no less, as Australia's best friend in Asia.
The deftness of Abbott's ego-stroking language on FTA – pointedly referencing the pioneering work of ''Abe-san's'' grandfather and past prime minister (Nobusuke Kishi) on freeing up trade – only serves to underscore just how percussive the ICJ route inevitably was, forsaking the vague subtlety of diplomacy for the cold clarity of international legalism.
Abbott doubted the wisdom of the litigation, and presumably would not have pursued it had it been his decision to make, but in the end, it had bipartisan support.
And it worked.