Antarctica NZ warns MPs - funding freeze cannot continue

An ageing Scott Base, and the requirement of far more ambitious scientific expeditions has placed significant strain on ...
KARL DRURY/Fairfax NZ

An ageing Scott Base, and the requirement of far more ambitious scientific expeditions has placed significant strain on Antarctica New Zealand. It's calling on the Government to lift a four-year funding freeze, so it continue operating at full capability.

Antarctica New Zealand has warned MPs its operations will be unsustainable beyond the next year, if a four-year funding freeze imposed on the agency isn't lifted. 

At a Parliamentary Select Committee, Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Peter Beggs told MPs more ambitious science projects and ageing assets at Scott Base, left the agency in a precarious position. 

Without extra funding, New Zealand could lose significant credibility in the region and Christchurch could see a significant dent in its economy if US operations shifted to a competing organisation in Hobart, Australia. 

Antarctica New Zealand was expected to perform slightly favourably to a forecast $1.7m deficit this financial year. 

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The Government has held its funding steady at $15.2 million since 2012. Antarctica New Zealand works to facilitate world-leading scientific work and maximise the value of Antarctic programmes to Christchurch.

A Deloitte report requested by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully in July, last year, layed bare the organisation's finances. From that, McCully gave the go-ahead for Antarctica NZ to launch a budget bid for this year. The agency was working with Treasury on that bid currently. 

Beggs said science was the currency in Antarctica, and New Zealand's dominance and leadership in the region would diminish if it could not fulfil its functions.

That held major environmental and security risks for New Zealand, if it was not seen as an active player at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. 

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Antarctica New Zealand chair Rob Fenwick said there would be two major consequences if funding was not increased.

"The first is that the international residual scientific knowledge on climate change is going to shrink, to the detriment of the world. 

"The second thing that would happen as a result of our being underfunded and not being able to maintain our capacity is reputational damage," Antarctica NZ chair Rob Fenwick said.

The stakes were "quite high". 

Outside the select committee, Beggs said that if the agency continued to support the science logistics it was being asked for, "we wouldn't be operating to support those events beyond this time next year". 

"It doesn't mean that Scott Base would shut shop, it just means that our science ambition reduces to science events that are much, much closer to base," he said.  

"The big driver for this funding challenge is the complex requirements to get, in some cases, 1000km from Scott Base. When historically we were in a helicopter-hop from Scott Base." 

Funding shortages could also have heavy implications for Christchurch, which is the departure point for 75 per cent of scientists flying to Antarctica. It's thought the industry contributes more than $280 million a year to the local economy.

The American presence in Christchurch, as part of the McMurdo team, was an important economic boost for the city. But a similar base in Hobart, Australia, was vying for a shift in US operations. 

"The United States programme's intent to remain in Christchurch is determined by our participation and logistics support of them and us," Fenwick told MPs. 

 - Stuff

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