When Australian governments announce new policy that has only been thought of in terms of domestic impact, foreign diplomats in Canberra sigh, write their briefings home and know that tomorrow will be the same as today.

When governments announce that they are not really interested in pursuing their claim to almost half of the only unexploited landmass on Earth, foreign diplomats know that the briefings will find their way into a wide variety of agencies around the world and be read with intense scrutiny.

Because that is what Australia has just done. Leaked documents show CSIRO plans to close its ice lab and cease key Antarctic science activities. Obliterating the capacity of the national research agency to continue its science program in Antarctica sends a direct signal to those nations who are more interested in exploitation: Australian interests in Antarctica are waning.

Australia's Antarctic policy framework is rapidly becoming a victim of shortsighted cost cutting and politically-motivated bureaucratic malaise. The cuts to funding have national sovereignty and security implications well beyond science. In short, we are creating an international relations mess with profound implications.

Why is the Antarctic science budget so important? Firstly, because the 1933 Permanent Court of International Justice decision on Eastern Greenland determined that title to a piece of remote and unpopulated territory is subject to the effective occupation of that territory by the country that claims it.

Occupation, in this case, means being there, and that means science.

Secondly, because maintenance of the governance status-quo is about all that can protect Australian strategic interests in the current environment. Destabilising the delicate balance south of 60° will hurt.

Australia is one of seven nations that claim territory in Antarctica. We claim the largest share by far: 42% of the Antarctic continent and 36% of our maritime estate lies south of our country. For the past 100 years we have attempted to play a leading role in Antarctic affairs and have achieved a level of international respect. We were one of the 12 original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, were instrumental in the protection of the Antarctic through the Madrid Protocol, championed the creation of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, and today host the secretariat of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (an important part of the Antarctic Treaty System [ATS]).

Recent (2014-16) decisions by the federal government and CSIRO risk Australian interests well beyond the Great South Land. The problem, succinctly expressed by Tony Press in the '20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan' is that:

'The Antarctic is strategically important to Australia. The non-militarisation of Antarctica and its unique governance provide a region of peace and security at Australia's southern borders, and the Antarctic Treaty helps protect Australia's sovereign position with respect to the Australian Antarctic Territory.'

Australia's investment in Antarctica has fallen dramatically since 2012. Cutting funding to Australia's increasingly modest Antarctic science program ignores our strategic interests. It damages our territorial claims, allows others to breach the ATS, and risks creating a slowly escalating crisis to our south. The small crumbs fed to keep the Australian Antarctic Division on life support are unlikely to be sufficient to counter this damage.

Governance of international spaces such as the Antarctic (and in some respects the Arctic) is a nuanced game of public diplomacy supported by science and logistical cooperation between nations. Science is, as Tony Press wrote, the currency of legitimacy in Antarctica. It restricts international conflicts to mid-level bureaucratic spats that can be resolved without political damage. 

However, continued political influence relies on a basic level of investment and commitment in support of the ATS. It's not about budget repair or what we think is domestically adequate: failure to live up to international expectations and to 'play the Antarctic game' in a manner than supports Australia's position directly undermines our strategic interests.

Australia's position in Antarctica has become increasingly fragile over the past two decades as other nations have invested heavily in new bases and research programs. We struggle to man the three mainland bases we staff, and have no stations in the interior. Other nations have been building bases (many in 'our' territory) almost as fast as the ships can deliver them, and flexing their muscles to test the strength of the ATS. Russia's repeated blocking of the Ross Sea marine reserves proposal is but one example of the emerging cracks. Our influence on the behavior of others appears to be waning as the politics of Antarctic are heating up.

In 2010, Australia released its Strategic Science Plan to 2021-21, and at the end of 2014, the 20 Year Antarctic Strategic Plan (the Press Report). Just a few months earlier the Abbott Government had slashed the Antarctic and CSIRO budgets, and the jobs of perhaps 120 scientific staff involved in Antarctic work. The Government chose, rather than to adopt the recommendations of the Press Report, to wait until April this year, when it provided a 'response to the plan' consisting of two documents: the Australian Antarctic Strategy, and the 20 Year Action Plan

The Strategy lamentably lacks the vision and depth of the Press Report while providing a simple definition of national priorities. The Action Plan presents a reasonable array of new (and necessary) toys, but clearly fails to deliver the outcomes defined in the Strategy. There simply isn't enough money or thought given to the international implications of these decisions.

The net effect of federal policy on Antarctica since 2012 has been to slice the budget by more than 30%, and dramatically reduce the capacity of Australian scientists to continue long term monitoring programs and carry out new and important research.

The apparently independent abolition of Antarctic research by CSIRO last week compounds the problem. These very deep cuts are likely to be seen by the world as a major lack of Australian commitment to Antarctica.

The foreign diplomats in Canberra are shaking their heads and muttering 'what on Earth is Australia doing?'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Andreas Kambanis.