Can't have whale and eat it too

Let's be clear about one thing from the start: Japanese whaling is not only unnecessary and unpleasant, it is actually illegal.

This is not simply because of the whaling ships' blatant violation of declared marine sanctuaries and Australian territorial waters. It is illegal at its very core because it is based on a brazen lie.

The International Whaling Commission has authorised the Japanese to kill a certain number of various whale species each year for scientific purposes - not for eating or for fun, but for that single end. Yet the Japanese have basically given up all pretence that their annual expeditions have anything at all to do with science. There are occasional throwaway lines about examining a gland behind the ears of the dead whales to determine how old they were when their lives were ended, but nothing serious has ever appeared in a scientific journal. Nor is it ever likely to.

Whale meat is openly served in Japanese restaurants, which have been given a certain cachet by the international condemnation to which they have been subjected; there is a touch of edginess about eating whale in the same way as there is about eating the potentially deadly fugu fish. But the market is a very limited one and by itself would not justify the huge expense of mounting the annual expeditions.

The real reason Japanese persist in the practice is sheer cussedness; they are not going to be pushed around by the colonialists of the West, whom they regard as both bullies and hypocrites. After all, every other nation on Earth slaughters animals for food, often under cruel and inhumane conditions. To argue for special treatment for whales, especially those that are well off the endangered list, is sheer humbug. And they are not going to put up with it, so there.

From this perspective the most effective way to end whaling might be to simply ignore it; the probability is that after a few years it would be quietly phased out anyway, for reasons of simple economics. But that is obviously not going to happen, so while the whaling continues it is up to the rest of the world, and in particular the countries of the International Whaling Commission, to enforce its own rules.

But once again, this is not going to happen; Realpolitik dictates that no government in its right mind is going to go to war with Japan over whaling, so all that is left is the cumbersome system of international law. Australia has, belatedly, taken a case to the International Court of Justice, but the hearings will be both delayed and prolonged and the outcome deeply uncertain.

So in the meantime, what is to be done? The Opposition, which spent a decade and more in government doing absolutely nothing, is now demanding that the government send a gunboat - well, actually a customs vessel - to look on. But unless the customs vessel is prepared to open fire, it is hard to see what that would achieve. And even the Opposition, for all its hairy-chested ranting about border protection where wretched and desperate asylum seekers are concerned, is not suggesting that.

All of which leaves the politicians effectively impotent, and this is where the vigilantes come in.

Groups like Sea Shepherd can and do claim the moral high ground; they are, after all, only trying to enforce the law where those sworn to uphold it have wimped out. But that does not give them free reign to cause chaos and carnage on the high seas, and if having done so against the advice of their own government their members get into strife, it's a bit rough to expect the government to bail them out. There is no virtue in taking the risks unless you are prepared to bear the responsibility for the consequences.

The government clearly has a duty to do what it can, within the law, to help its own citizens in distress and in the case of the Sea Shepherd's three crewmen, the government has fulfilled that obligation admirably. But it would be unwise for those who sail under the skull and crossbones to take this as a green light for all future actions. After all, even Queen Elizabeth had to deny her privateers, heroes such as Morgan and Drake, when their actions took them completely over the top.

So are the vigilantes of the Sea Shepherd also heroes, as Bob Brown and others would aver? Well, I suppose it all depends on where you stand, but at least we can agree that they are certainly not subversives; they are open and honest about their actions to the point of celebrating them. And in this they follow the honourable tradition of most Australian protesters, even those who occasionally stray outside the law.

Which is why it is so distasteful - indeed, one could even say Unaustralian - for the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, to have sooled ASIO and our other security services onto those seeking to disrupt the activities of the coal seam gas miners. To suggest that in some way they could constitute a threat to national security in the manner of suicide-bombing terrorists is not simply absurd; it is barely sane. And it is the mark of a government deeply affected by paranoia, whose ministers see conspiracy, danger and insurrection in every instance of dissent, however overt and legitimate it may be.

If demonstrators and protesters break the law, it is a matter for the police, not for the spooks. Ferguson, who comes from a family steeped in the lore of political protest, should know better. His father Jack led many a protest in the old days and regarded his ASIO file as a badge of honour, while deploring the authoritarian tendencies in the government which ordered its creation. Gillard should call young Martin off immediately before Jack rolls out of his grave breathing righteous vengeance upon both of them.

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