Defence called on for potential airdrop supply mission to Antarctic expeditioners after icebreaker’s cargo cranes fail

Defence called on for potential airdrop supply mission to Antarctic expeditioners after icebreaker’s cargo cranes fail
  • PublishedApril 25, 2024

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) is working with the Department of Defence on a potential airdrop to deliver much-needed supplies, including coffee, to expeditioners at a remote station on the frozen continent.

The plan is being developed because Australia’s icebreaker, RSV Nuyina, was only able to offload half its cargo during a recent voyage to Mawson Station.

Mawson Station, Antarctica
Mawson Station missed out on a lot of quality-of-life supplies in the Nuyina’s marred resupply mission.(Supplied: AAD/Chris Wilson)

The ship’s resupply mission was disrupted by bad weather and malfunctioning cranes, as revealed by the ABC earlier this month.

Details about the new contingency plan were outlined at a Senate inquiry in Hobart on Wednesday.

“We’re having really positive conversations with Department of Defence about potentially doing an airdrop to Mawson,” AAD boss Emma Campbell said.

“We are working through the logistics on that and hopeful that that defence asset will be available.”

Nuyina crane from below
The Nuyina’s two main cargo cranes malfunctioned during its recent resupply mission.

Ms Campbell said while some essential supplies were able to be delivered last month, other cargo including building materials and dry goods were stuck on board the vessel.

“The base has enough to get on with and they could manage for the winter,” Ms Campbell said.

“But clearly having more equipment for the trades, and those personal effects and the coffee are really important as well for quality of life for our expeditioners.”

Defence has previously conducted airdrops to Antarctica as part of Operation Southern Discovery, including the delivery of 10 tonnes of supplies to expeditioners at the remote Bunger Hills in 2022.

An AAD spokesperson said the timing and logistics for a potential airdrop had not been finalised.

Second ship could be leased due to industrial action

Two people, one wearing a mask, stand dockside next to a large ship
The RSV Nuyina might not sail on time due to industrial action.(ABC News: Andy Cunningham )

The inquiry was also told a separate contingency plan is being developed in response to ongoing industrial action that threatens to delay the Nuyina’s upcoming resupply voyage to Macquarie Island.

The ship was originally scheduled to make the 1,500-kilometre voyage by the end of this month, but the departure has been pushed back until at least early May.

Ms Campbell said the AAD was considering leasing another vessel in case the dispute between private operator Serco and ship’s engineers and marine officers was not resolved.

“One of the things we are doing is looking at contingency shipping again so that we can get our expeditioners home from Macquarie Island,” she said.

“You can understand that people have been there for a year and are very keen to get home and we’re certainly looking at options.”

The cost of hiring a vessel had not yet been determined, Ms Campbell said.

Budget blowout under scrutiny

The Senate inquiry was called last year after leaked internal correspondence revealed the AAD had overspent its budget.

The blowout triggered concerns that science programs could be adversely impacted by subsequent efforts to rein in spending.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam questioned officials about when federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was first told about the AAD’s almost $42 million overspend.

A man in a suit smiling.
Senator Jonathon Duniam believes the inquiry has uncovered “troubling findings”.(Supplied: Jonathon Duniam)

An official told the inquiry he phoned the minister’s office in July, when it first became apparent the blowout was more than double that of earlier forecasts.

“What course of action was requested by the minister’s office out of your flagging of this issue?” Senator Duniam asked.

“Well, none, it’s for the department to manage, so it would have been a courtesy call to let them know,” replied Rob Hanlon, chief finance officer of the department Ms Plibersek manages.

Following the hearing, Senator Duniam said the inquiry had uncovered “a great many troubling findings”.

“The department themselves have said that $40 million is an extraordinary overrun in terms of this expenditure,” he said.

“I know that if I’d have been in Ms Plibersek’s position, I would have immediately sought an explanation as to how [the budget blowout occurred].

“I would have asked for immediate answers on how they intend to provide remedies for that … I wouldn’t have just let it go.”

In a statement, Ms Plibersek blamed the former federal Liberal government for “irresponsibly managing” Australia’s Antarctic program.

“As a result, we’ve had to have three inquiries into the program in 18 months,” she said.

“The Albanese government is working hard to clean up the mess and put the Antarctic program on a more secure footing.

“We’ve locked in significant long-term funding for the Australian Antarctic Program – its budget is going up, every year, for the next three years. And it is higher every year than it would have been under the Liberals and Nationals.”

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who chairs the inquiry, said he was “disappointed” to learn at Wednesday’s hearing the AAD had not yet replaced its chief scientist.

The position became vacant in late December, but the AAD said it did not find a suitable candidate during a recruitment campaign in January.

A senior executive will act in the role pending the outcome of a second recruitment drive, which could take six months to finalise.

“The chief scientist plays a critical role in providing strategic advice on the prioritisation of science, so it’s a critical issue,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.

The inquiry’s final report is expected to be released by May 8.


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