Commentary | 15 June 2014

Pride of place for a pirate ship

Pride of place for a pirate ship

James Brown

The Australian

Please click here for full online text.

  • James Brown

Pride of place for a pirate ship

James Brown

The Australian

Please click here for full online text.

  • James Brown

Executive Summary

ONE is a federally funded nation- al cultural institution charged with preserving Australia’s mari- time heritage; the other is a pri- vately funded international activist group that promotes rad- ical “direct action”. One is gov- erned by an act of parliament; the other operates on a charter “out- side the petty cultural chauvinism of the human species”.

Yet over the past 12 months the Australian National Maritime Museum and Sea Shepherd have formed an unlikely alliance. Exac- tly how the museum decided to promote a group that supports illegal violence on the high seas is something of a mystery, and the extent of collaboration between museum staff and Sea Shepherd personnel is not clear.

But at the very least it appears that a taxpayer-funded cultural institution has made some serious errors of judgment.

On two occasions over the past 12 months, Sea Shepherd has been hosted by the maritime museum.

Late last year, after a museum staffer met Sea Shepherd activists socially, the 55m-long Sea Shep- herd vessel Sam Simon was host- ed for a weekend visit.

This year an agreement was struck for the same Sea Shepherd vessel, fresh from a confrontat- ional Antarctic campaign, to take part in the museum’s Whale Sea- son exhibition.

As a result, an operational Sea Shepherd ship was given a promi- nent spot on the museum’s city- side wharf for two months — including the busy April school holiday period. Sea Shepherd will save thousands of dollars on its normal berthing fees and port ser- vices while operating in Sydney. The museum has also paid for the travel costs of the ship and crew to and from Melbourne.

Beyond this, the opportunity to operate from what it describes as a “prime location” allows Sea Shep- herd to conduct tours of the ship, give presentations on its opera- tions and solicit donations from museum visitors. “We thought it would drive people to the museum,” ANMM spokeswoman Shirani Aththas explained. “There was a commercial motivation.”

The museum considers con- tentious contemporary maritime issues such as whaling are well within its remit. In a formal email response, the museum said: “We see ourselves as providing a place where members of the public can find out more information and make up their own mind. It is not the museum’s role to judge or have an opinion on these issues”.

The museum’s social media ac- counts enthusiastically promote Sea Shepherd’s presence. The museum’s “Inspiring Stories” lec- ture program for schoolchildren features a flattering description of

Sea Shepherd’s activities and facil- itates Sea Shepherd staff present- ing “an understanding of the organisation, its history and life aboard the vessels”.

Beyond the financial and pro- motional support the museum is providing to Sea Shepherd, host- ing the Sam Simon lends credi- bility to a vigilante organisation whose maritime tactics are ques- tionable at best, and often have been labelled as criminal.

Sea Shepherd’s website proud- ly lists how its members have rammed ships at sea, conducted illegal boardings and detentions, damaged private property, sabo- taged opponents in port and scut- tled several ships it suspected of illegal whaling and fishing opera- tions. So extreme are Sea Shep- herd’s anti-whaling campaigns that they have been rejected by the international environmental organisation Greenpeace, which notes in a statement that “(Sea Shepherd has) used violence in the past, in the most dangerous seas on earth. We believe that throwing butyric acid at the whal- ers, dropping cables to foul their props, and threatening to ram them in the freezing waters of the Antarctic constitutes violence”.

In a ruling against Sea Shep- herd last year, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, de- termining: “When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks, and point high- powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate”.

Greenpeace believes that Sea Shepherd’s chosen method of activism is not only morally wrong, but also tactically unhelp- ful to the campaign against Japa- nese whaling.

In Sea Shepherd brochures Australia is now referred to as the operational base for annual cam- paigns against the Japanese whaling fleet operating in Antarctic waters. Sea Shepherd enjoys strong support in the community, and in federal parliament: former Greens senator Bob Brown re- cently stepped down as chairman of the group’s Australian board.

But Sea Shepherd also has some unlikely political supporters.

John Howard’s former environ- ment minister Ian Campbell is on Sea Shepherd’s advisory board (though he disagrees with the campaign against shark culling in Western Australia).

Sea Shepherd has been consist- ently critical of what it sees as a failure by successive Australian governments to intervene to stop illegal Japanese whaling in Aus- tralian Antarctic waters. Despite Australian efforts to pursue legal remedies against Japanese whal- ers through the International Court of Justice, Sea Shepherd representatives have accused the federal government of being “grossly irresponsible” in its ef- forts to protect whales.

Given the recent history, it seems unusual that an institution like the ANMM would take a stance on such a charged and poli- tical maritime issue.

Given that the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet commander (to be appointed as chief of navy next month) sits on the museum’s council, it is even harder to under- stand why the museum thinks it appropriate to promote a group that encourages breaches of inter- national maritime law.

Other aspects of the museum’s whaling exhibition are troubling too. One of the central features of Whale Season is an interactive digital display.

It was produced by the Sydney- based creative agency Cypha, which also happens to have pro- duced Sea Shepherd’s most recent online fundraising campaign as well as websites supporting Sea Shepherd’s Antarctic campaign, Operation Relentless.

The agency refers to itself as “defenders” of Sea Shepherd. A representative from Cypha con- firms that the museum was aware of its ongoing support for Sea Shepherd before it selected the firm over two other companies.

There are important questions to be answered about the mu- seum’s relationship with Sea Shepherd and what steps it took to guard against perceptions its Whale Season exhibition might be biased. But for an institution com- mitted to informing the public, the museum is remarkably tight- lipped.

In a ruling against Sea Shep- herd last year, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, de- termining: “When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks, and point high- powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate”.

Greenpeace believes that Sea Shepherd’s chosen method of activism is not only morally wrong, but also tactically unhelp- ful to the campaign against Japa- nese whaling.

In Sea Shepherd brochures Australia is now referred to as the operational base for annual cam- paigns against the Japanese whaling fleet operating in Antarctic waters. Sea Shepherd enjoys strong support in the community, and in federal parliament: former Greens senator Bob Brown re- cently stepped down as chairman of the group’s Australian board.

But Sea Shepherd also has some unlikely political supporters.

John Howard’s former environ- ment minister Ian Campbell is on Sea Shepherd’s advisory board (though he disagrees with the campaign against shark culling in Western Australia).

Sea Shepherd has been consist- ently critical of what it sees as a failure by successive Australian governments to intervene to stop illegal Japanese whaling in Aus- tralian Antarctic waters. Despite Australian efforts to pursue legal remedies against Japanese whal- ers through the International Court of Justice, Sea Shepherd representatives have accused the

It committed to answering detailed questions on this issue, but had second thoughts and later directed me to pursue all further inquiries via the Freedom of Infor- mation Act.

James Brown is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of Anzac’s Long Shadow: The cost of our national obsession (Black Inc).