Yesterday Australia announced its brand-spankingly new, beautiful marine border protection network. Well, I guess it was the day before in Australia, but if you didn’t know, we are now the proud hosts of the world’s largest network of marine reserves. But I’ll also have you know that when it comes to Oceans, Disasters, Indigenous peoples, SDGs and reforming mining extraction processes, Australia is emerging as a global leader here in Rio.
Since 2003, Australia has played a leading international role around Ocean protection. As the biggest island nation in the world, it is easy to see why. But on the global stage, we’ve really stepped up our game. We are currently ‘chairing’ the talks here on Rio+20, and our negotiators are working hard to introduce strong regulations to ensure against destructive overfishing. We are also working hard to eliminate fishery subsidies that artificially prop up this industry.
More importantly however, Australia has played the key role in introducing a holistic approach to maritime protection. Within the UNCSD negotiations generally, the fishing industry seems to be the only real focus. Which is fair enough. Anyone who has seen the film, End of the Line would wholeheartedly support this global effort to regulate international fisheries. However, Australia has taken a critically important stance on expanding the focus of the UNCSD. We have introduced and supported strong action over ocean acidification, ocean fertilisation and biodiversity protection in international waters.
Nowadays, we’re looking into new and emerging issues, like access and benefits schemes for sharing marine resources, and Australia’s lead negotiator told me that she is very hopeful that we will see some “good progress in Oceans” here in Rio+20.
However, for all the good that Australia has done to progress talks on Oceans, there are also those who believe we could be doing much more. Frances O’Brien, one of Australia’s brightest young minds and a Global Voices delegate from Macquarie University yesterday questioned the Australian delegation on a number of issues.
How do you think Australia has been going?
“It really depends on what you think is a good job. If you’re thinking of them taking a role as a compromiser, then they’re doing an extremely good job. For example, there will be text that will be very fiercely debated, and they will provide an alternative to that. They will be just detailed enough that the EU will be happy, and just vague enough that countries such as the US and Canada will also approve.”
What have you noticed so far?
“What I have noticed watching the discussions since Wednesday is that the negotiations have changed quite a bit. Initially Australia, EU and the G77 were the main ones talking. More recently, there has been significantly increased input from Nauru, Japan and G77. We’re also hearing a lot more from Micronesia. Micronesia and Nauru are sticking together like glue, of course. Brazil has been getting in on it as well.”
What do you see as Australia’ role in all of this?
“To be honest, they’re not being particularly radical. If they wanted to give the document some teeth, they might side with Iceland. At the moment there is a lot of soft language. You can see there is a very clear division within the negotiations. A number are very supportive of the idea of committing to certain goals, others will be softer. Australia has played the mediator role, what they will try to do is compromise between the two sides. If the language is saying ‘invite’ they will keep it there but try to strengthen the rest. If the verb at the beginning is something stronger like “commit,” they will soften the rest of the text around it.”
What is your perspective then?
“They’re being a very good mediator, but I would still like to see Australia take a stronger approach. In terms of ensuring a quicker resolution, Australia is doing an excellent job. Pragmatically speaking, that’s a good thing. Most of the discussion has been on fisheries, they’re all very economic based discussions.”
What would you want them to do?
“They should be pushing to remove phrases like “where possible” and “at least.” There is still an incredible focus on fisheries. In the Australian submission document, 4 out of 6 outcomes are on fisheries and there is little mention of other issues such as ocean acidification. I think that they too have too strong an approach on fisheries. I don’t agree with it. I would have them place a more equal focus on the various issues that have been identified as Oceans problems. I can understand why they did it, but I don’t like it. In order to protect the environment there is a lot more work that needs to be done.”
Only yesterday I saw an African delegate writing in a diary entitled; “Australia’s bid for a seat at the UN security council”. If Australia is going to sit atop that table, it will have to strategically highlight its creative pragmatism here in Rio. When it comes to Oceans, it appears that we’re taking on a strong mediating role. But when you scratch a little bit below the water’s surface, it appears there is much more we could be doing.
Being a mediator is a good position for Australia. It will serve well to win political friends, and it might be a great tactic for proving our usefulness on the UN security council. But it might not be the best tactic for the environment.
About the authorChris Wright
Climate researcher, political ecologist, activist and an award-winning slam poet from Australia.