Gales said the debate was not about human rights, “nor is it a debate about the important subject of global food security”, but was a “business proposition” against which there were “legitimate environmental and welfare concerns”.
Japan’s proposal asks the IWC members to approve the creation of a “sustainable whaling committee” that would set catch limits. It believes that certain populations of whales are sufficiently plentiful to allow the IWC to lift the ban and allow the country to restart commercial hunts.
IWC members are expected to vote on Japan’s detailed proposal in Florianópolis on Friday – the final day of the meeting.
The IWC’s moratorium on whaling was introduced in 1985. While Iceland and Norway effectively opted-out of the moratorium to allow them to continue hunting, Japan has used a clause in the treaty that allows whaling for scientific purposes.
In 2014 Australia successfully challenged Japan’s scientific whaling program in the international court of justice. But Japan restarted two years later, reducing its quotas.
Gales, who rejected a “narrative” that the IWC had become dysfunctional, told the meeting that Australia “fully respect the rights of any party to this convention to make their case for a resumption of commercial whaling – just as Japan’s proposition is doing here”, but members should also respect Australia’s right to oppose it.
Australia supported requests for Aboriginal subsistence whaling quotas, Gales said, but this was not at odds with the country’s rejection of commercial whaling.
“Both positions are long held by Australia, and both reflect the clear and legitimate elements, including science and the mandate of the Australian people, that inform our policy positions.”
Gales also criticised the way Japan had submitted a complex proposal to the IWC, which also included a proposal to change the voting rules that would see major decisions passed with only a simple majority of votes, rather than the current three-quarters majority.
“If this proposal fails, it is likely that the failure will be as much based on the manner in which the proposal was delivered to the commission, its legal irregularities and the unworkable procedural changes it proposed as on differences in fundamental positions on commercial whaling,” he said.
Alexia Wellbelove, campaigner at the Humane Society International, said Australia had been first to speak in the debate and had “set the tone”.
“It was a strong notice of intent from Australia and other pro-conservation countries that they consider Japan’s proposal to be irresponsible and out of date,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Australia was one of 40 countries to vote in favour of a non-binding “Florianópolis declaration” tabled by Brazil that called for greater protections for whales, a rejection of commercial whaling and for financial support to further develop non-lethal research efforts.
Australia had also voted in favour of establishing a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, but that proposal failed to gain the three-quarters majority needed, with 39 countries voting for the plan, 25 against and three abstentions.
At the opening of the meeting on Monday, Senator Anne Ruston, the assistant minister for international development and the Pacific, said in a formal address that “the Australian people would not tolerate an Australian government supporting any proposal that would see a return of industrial, high-seas whaling.”
“New pressures, such as climate change, ship strike, marine debris, and bycatch are additional threats to the recovery and survival of whale populations,” she said.
“It is in this context that Australia cannot support any move to resume the practice of commercial whaling. “