WikiLeaks shows Aust bid to grab Ice flights

MICHAEL FIELD AND SAM SACHDEVA – The Press

Last updated 05:00 06/01/2011

LATEST: Australia is “jealous” of Christchurch’s special relationship with the US over Antarctica, Mayor Bob Parker says.

Australia has made a bid to steal the United States’ Operation Deep Freeze from Christchurch, according to a diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks.

Canberra made an approach last year to get the US National Science Foundation operation in Christchurch moved to Hobart, it shows.

Former Australian environment minister Peter Garrett wrongly argued that Hobart, in Tasmania, was closer and had a better jet service to the Ice.

According to the cable, written by the US Ambassador to Canberra, Jeffrey Bleich, Garrett raised the issue last February after the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) began a service to the Ice using a commercial Airbus A319.

“Garrett pointed to the availability of air transport from Australia is only four hours [compared to eight hours for US aircraft based in New Zealand] as a strong incentive to travel there, and suggested senior USG [US Government] officials interested in travelling in Antarctica could use Australia as a base,” Bleich wrote in his cable.

Australia recently began an air service to the Wilkins Aerodrome near Casey Station, 2700 kilometres south-east of Tasmania.

That service has been suspended because the Wilkins runway is melting in higher-than-normal temperatures, and Australian flights have been routed to the McMurdo Sound airstrip used by the US and New Zealand.

Over the past few weeks, ice temperatures at the Wilkins runway have been above the critical threshold of minus-five degrees Celsius, which means the structural integrity of the ice runway cannot be guaranteed.

Hobart is 3992km from McMurdo, while Christchurch is 3835km from the base, Google Maps shows.

The Airbus A319 is faster than a C130 Hercules. However, most of the US operation from Christchurch now uses the bigger C-17 Globemaster, which travels about the same speed.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said he was “not even slightly concerned” by news of the Australian overtures.

“They’re just jealous of the close links between Christchurch and the US.

“They’re johnny-come-latelys,” he said.

Parker said the city had developed a “close and strong” relationship with the US since the base was established more than 50 years ago.

He said Christchurch was a more logical base for the Antarctic operations than Hobart, due to its proximity to the Antarctic, its long involvement with Operation Deep Freeze, and the strength of the American dollar in New Zealand.

Garrett’s claims that an Australian operation would enable faster trips to the Ice were “complete rubbish”, Parker said.

The problems with Australia’s runway were a further example of why Deep Freeze should stay in Christchurch, he said.

The American operation brought in about $80 million to Canterbury annually, and had helped to build ties between the two countries, Parker said.

The National Science Foundation, which manages the US Antarctic Programme, said there had been no discussions about a move from Christchurch.

Foundation Christchurch representative Arthur Brown said the base was in negotiations with Christchurch International Airport to extend one of its leases.

Brown said the city provided good infrastructure, “excellent” medical services and a deep-water port.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the Australian Government could not be blamed for encouraging the Americans to move the base to their country.

McCully said the Antarctic partnership between New Zealand and the US was “something that we both value”, shown when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked to visit the Christchurch base during her New Zealand visit.

Garrett has moved from environment to an education portfolio.

 

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