The ‘Shepherd’s’ stupid, black sheep

Political wailing greeted the whaling protesters who recently boarded a Japanese ship in the Southern Ocean. DON AITKIN says the witless action came unfairly at the expense of Australian taxpayers

THE January respite was enlivened for me by the behaviour of some self-appointed guardians of the whales.

For those who were immersed in the sea or otherwise holidaying at the time, three “activists” boarded a Japanese vessel, where they were at once taken into custody. It was portrayed in something of a gung-ho style in some media.

The Australian Government responded diplomatically, and after several days of negotiation and travel by an Australian customs ship, the three were removed from the Japanese vessel, and brought back to Australia.

Our Prime Minister was cross, and called the behaviour “reprehensible”. She thought the cost of repatriating the men would run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The “Sea Shepherd” people dismissed this as irrelevant, and spoke as they were doing Australia’s job.

That was not the end of it. The “Sea Shepherd” activists still in the Southern Ocean are alleged to have thrown bottles containing a nausea-inducing substance into the Japanese ship, and have tried to disable it in other ways.

“I’m trying to get these guys off our backs… they’ve chased us now 2000 miles”, the “Sea Shepherd” skipper explained. More Biggles stuff.

I’m with the PM. The behaviour of the “Sea Shepherd” people has been extraordinary, thoughtless and witless. To board a ship at sea could be construed as piracy, not just trespass, to start with. How are the sailors receiving them to know that they mean no harm, but are just trying to protect the whale?

In my view the boarders would have been unable to complain had they been incarcerated for the remainer of the voyage, taken to Japan and then tried, for whatever the correct offence would be in maritime law. This did happen to a New Zealander activist a year or two ago. He did not enjoy the experience.

Of course, that outcome would not have served either Japan or Australia well, and the diplomatic solution was effective, if expensive.

The PM has indicated that she doesn’t expect to receive any payment from the activists, which means that you and I and the rest of the Australian cohort of taxpayers will help to foot the bill.

Maybe there are some who think that the welfare of the whales is more important. I’m not one of them. The Australian Government has made its position on whaling very clear, as has most of the rest of the world. Indeed, in May 2010 Australia commenced a case in the International Court of Justice with Japan as the defendant.

The notion that this is not enough, and good people have to rally to the cause, commission ships, and sail to the Southern Ocean to frustrate whaling, seems bizarre to me. This is juvenile vigilante behaviour. If the activists want to make their protest, they should go to Japan, and demonstrate there.

I would feel the same even if the whaling were done explicitly for food. I have inspected a few large-scale Japanese food markets with great interest, being a foodie, and I have not seen whale meat for sale there. No matter. Unless one is a vegetarian, one has to accept that the animals whose flesh we eat have intelligence. I could not criticise the Japanese for eating something I don’t myself want to eat, while I am happy to eat meat and fish.

And a last thought: the “Sea Shepherd” organisation is a tax-exempt charity registered in the US. It has no such status here and I would be strongly opposed to its having such a status, which it is apparently seeking. Why should bodies whose purpose and practice are in large part political be supported by the taxpayer?

Don Aitkin, political scientist and historian, served as vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002.

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