Recently Japan and Australia sparred at the annual International Whaling Commission meeting. And it won’t be the last time. The highly unbalanced approach many countries adopt to whaling mean that deep divisions within the IWC are likely to be repeated, and could get worse.
In different ways, Australia and Japan share the blame for this. In each country, special interest groups dominate policy debate and distort measured handling of issues – the whaling bureaucrats in Japan and the wailing conservationists in Australia. In the meantime, insufficient effort is invested in understanding opposing points of view, and half-hearted attempts made at cooperation instead of confrontation. In both countries, the media have often not helped with narrow, opportunistic reporting, and by swallowing propaganda – from pro-whaling official sources in Japan and from the conservation movement in Australia.

In Australia, the debate is too politicised, is often emotional rather than objective, and tends to “scapegoat” Japan as if it were the only pro-whaling IWC nation. In Japan, whaling falsely became a matter of national pride and cultural sensitivity, but conservation arguments received little attention, and Japan’s position was neither politically accountable nor defensible public policy. So far, despite mutual recriminations, Australia-Japan relations have not otherwise been damaged, but will this always be so? Already some Australians are calling for boycotts of Japanese goods, which would be disastrous. For Japan, Australia is only one of its opponents on whaling.

Whales are neither economically nor ecologically so important that they should provoke such vituperation and confrontation. Whale products are no longer needed anywhere and killing whales so cruelly just cannot be justified. Scientists, academics and journalists should disclose the facts about whaling more honestly and fully than before. Greater involvement by the general public and young people could help — through whale tourism, personal interaction, and increased exchanges of experts, workers in whaling-related industries, and journalists.

International institutions should not be abused or diverted from their purposes just because members cannot agree on sensible solutions. But Australia should not under-estimate Japan’s resolve on whaling which could destroy the IWC. Although the IWC is an imperfect mechanism, this would be a retrograde step.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey