SYDNEY — IN a major boost to environmentalists, the leaders of Australia and France have signaled their opposition to mining in Antarctica. Last year, a 33-nation agreement was reached to regulate mining in the world's last untapped continent. Beneath its icy surface, Antarctica harbors unknown quantities of oil, gold, platinum, and other strategic metals.
But it now appears the existing Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Minerals Resource Activities (CRAMRA) won't become law. All seven nations with Antarctic territorial claims must sign and ratify CRAMRA. Five - Britain, Argentina, Chile, Norway and New Zealand - have signed.
On Monday, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said Australia would not sign CRAMRA.
Last month, on French television, French Prime Minister Michel Rocard expressed reservations about the CRAMRA and raised the possibility of renegotiation. Last week, Mr. Hawke phoned Mr. Rocard to discuss their mutual reservations.
Now, Australia plans to ``pursue the urgent negotiation of a comprehensive environmental protection convention,'' according to a statement by Hawke. In short, Hawke wants Antarctica to be reserved as a wilderness park - off limits to all mining, including oil drilling.
It's a concept New Zealand pushed in 1975 with little success. More recently, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have promoted the idea.
``I think Hawke wants Australia to be seen as leading the world in conservation,'' says Michael Bland of Greenpeace Australia. ``The Antarctic mining convention could be used as a springboard into the international limelight. And if he benefits, that's OK, because it's going to save Antarctica.''
Environmental campaigns and catastrophes are capturing public attention at home and abroad. As a result, some analysts say, its time Hawke's liberal Australian Labor Party donned a policy coat of greener hue.
Oil spills in Antarctica and Alaska have received a lot of publicity here. Last week, the ``Green'' Independents made nationwide headlines here. They won five seats in the Australian state of Tasmania - enough to control the balance of power in the local parliament.
On the heels of that win, 20 of Australia's leading conservation groups said they would unite to make the environment a key issue in the next federal election. Indeed, Australian government and industry officials are working toward an agreement on banning the use of CFC's (chloroflourocarbons), which may set a world standard.
In France, Rocard's Antarctic position may also be a response to a greening of the populace. The Socialist government has made several recent concessions to environmentalists. And polls show as much as 17 percent of French voters plan to cast ballots for Green candidates in the June European Parliament elections.
But Hawke's Antarctic mining stance may not be motivated entirely by environmental concerns. His treasurer, Paul Keating, has said that CRAMRA will undermine sovereignty claims and deny Australia royalties from minerals from its claimed Antarctic territory.
Hawke will visit Paris in June. Discussion on how Australia and France can coordinate and sell their Antarctic anti-mining positions will be a top priority.
If France joins Australia in renegotiating CRAMRA, it can expect stiff opposition from the United States, Japan, West Germany, the Soviet Union, and New Zealand - which all support the mineral convention. Australian officials say it won't be easy to persuade other territorial claimants to join in the wilderness park concept.
CRAMRA supporters say the current unofficial, voluntary ban on mining won't hold forever. Mining will eventually occur, with or without an agreement. It's better to have the strict regulations this pact provides than throw out the CRAMRA agreement and leave Antarctica open to unregulated exploitation, supporters say. It took more than six years of arduous negotiations for 33 nations to agree on these guidelines, notes one New Zealand diplomat.
Critics of the wilderness-park concept say the idea has been floated before and sunk. Politically, the major industrial nations won't support it, they say. But a Hawke aide responds: ``It got very little support in 1975. World opinion may have changed sufficiently since then to make the concept viable.''