Australia’s commitment to ocean conservation is being questioned after the government chose to send a junior minister for only a brief visit to a key meeting of the International Whaling Commission, where Japan will attempt to lift a 30-year ban on commercial whaling.
Senator Anne Ruston, the assistant minister for international development and the Pacific, is due to arrive in Florianópolis, Brazil, on 8 September but will leave on 10 September, four days before the conclusion of the meeting.
The former Greens leader and whale campaigner Bob Brown joined Labor and the Greens in condemning the decision.
Brown said: “Australia is sending a non-cabinet assistant minister, who has nothing to do with protecting the environment, to a vital meeting in which Japan, which has the chair, hopes to upend the global moratorium on commercial whaling.
“This is an insult to every Australian voter concerned about the protection of our whales.”
Japan has tabled a proposal to the meeting to start a “sustainable” whaling program that would effectively end the global moratorium on commercial whaling.
Ruston said Australia would “continue to oppose any efforts to overturn the global moratorium on commercial whaling” and would call on other countries to do the same.
Japan has continued to hunt whales using a clause in the IWC treaty that allows for scientific whaling.
Australia successfully challenged that scientific premise in the International Court of Justice in 2014 but Japan restarted its program two years later and has faced no further legal action.
The shadow environment minister, Tony Burke, said: “When Labor was last in office, we had the environment minister attending the International Whaling Commission and the attorney general appearing personally before the International Court of Justice.
“It’s obvious to all Australians – and sadly obvious to Japan as well – that this Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government is not applying the pressure that is required.”
Speaking from Brazil, Matt Collis, director of international policy at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Guardian Australia the energy given to the issue from Australia and other pro-conservation countries had failed to match the enthusiasm from Japan to restart commercial whaling.
“Japan has a sustained and long-term strategy and we need conservation-minded countries to show that same commitment to end commercial whaling.”
Collis, who has previously advised the Australian government on IWC matters, said Australia could have chosen to take further legal action through the UN Convention on the Law of Sea, where maritime disputes can be settled.
We would like to see Australia and other governments take a case like that,” he said. “That option needs to be back on the table, particularly as Japan’s strategy appears to be getting bolder.”
Adam Burling, a spokesman for Sea Shepherd Australia, said while the Australian government had continued to take a pro-conservation stance at IWC meetings, “they have done nothing else to oppose Japanese whaling”.
The charity stopped its high-profile pursuit of Japan’s whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean in early 2017, saying they could not compete with the country’s military-grade technology.
Burling said a reason Australia had “gone quiet” on whaling was the lack of footage of Japanese whaling that Sea Shepherd used to provide.
“Now Japan can just go out there and we all have to rely on their own reports.”
As countries gathered for preparatory talks in Brazil earlier this week, WWF released data claiming Japan had killed more than 50 minke whales within the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area off Antarctica in January and February this year.
Burling said: “Australia has done a lot and the International Court of Justice case was groundbreaking and to put Japan on the international stage like that was amazing.
“Japan has not just set up a new whaling program since but now they want to build another floating slaughterhouse that will have a lifespan of decades. Now they are talking about reintroducing commercial whaling. That shows Japan’s commitment.
“Sea Shepherd spent more than a decade out at sea getting all the imagery and video that we could, and some of those stories reached more than a billion people in major media outlets around the world.
“The Australian government now needs to be doing that by sending out customs vessels and putting a spotlight on Japanese whaling.”
Burling said when the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull met the Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe, in January 2017, “all he did was express disappointment.”
“Japan has gone rogue. Their current whaling program does not even have the approval of the IWC’s scientific committee. That shows Japan is willing to battle on this issue on several fronts. Australia just has not done enough.”
Don Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University and an IWC expert, said: “I cannot recall an occasion where, at an IWC meeting of such importance, the Australian environment minister has not attended.
“There may be reasons why the minister is not attending but unfortunately that sends out a signal and, while there is a junior minister there, all of this will be noticed by some countries.”
He said Australia’s commissioner to the meeting, Dr Nick Gales, was capable and experienced and would provide leadership but added “if the minister makes the effort to go, they should be there for the important decisions”.
The Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said while it was “nothing personal” against Ruston, “This meeting is make or break for whales.
“Japan has spent years courting nations and building support in preparation for this meeting. Without serious diplomatic pressure being exerted in the meeting itself, we might just lose. The whales and our oceans will lose.”
He said he wished Ruston “every bit of luck” but suggested the prime minister should call in the former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop to fly to Brazil “if it’s not too late”.
He added: “I couldn’t be more frustrated that Australia risks ceding 30 years of global leadership on stopping whaling and that everything has been put at risk by the Liberals self-destruction.”
Groups including IFAW, Greenpeace and WWF are urging pro-conservation countries to rally around an alternative proposal, sponsored by host country Brazil.
The “Florianopolis declaration”, the groups say, presents an alternative, positive and forward-looking vision for the IWC that would “reorient” the commission to whale conservation and the role of whales in maintaining ecosystems.
Brown’s foundation was planning a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Canberra on Tuesday “to protest Japan’s bloody whaling program” and the country’s “intention to open the floodgates to commercial whaling”.