Australia and Japan have traded barbs ahead of a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Santiago, Chile.  Japan accuses Australia of lacking the conviction to save crucial talks from "a state of collapse".  Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett has fired back, insisting he will not compromise on the issue of whale conservation.  From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The challenge ahead of the International Whaling Commission - or IWC - is to get pro- and anti-whaling nations to find common ground.

But that could be tough.  Several countries vow to not accept any loosening of the whale hunting ban, while Japan and a few other countries, such as Norway, say whale stocks have expanded enough to allow commercial hunting.

Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett says Canberra must stand firm and condemn Japan's scientific whaling program.

Garrett says that Australia will not sign any deal at the IWC that might lead to an end to the moratorium on the commercial hunting of whales.

"Australia hasn't come to this whaling commission to compromise at all," Garrett said. "We are absolutely strongly of the view that we do not want to see the commercial exploitation of whale populations. We are strongly of the view that this commission needs to focus on the science of conservation, not on the science of killing whales."

A spokesman for the Japanese delegation, Glenn Inwood, accuses the Australians of trying to derail critical talks.

"I think it's a huge miscalculation for the Australian minister to step straight off the plane and come here to this meeting with fresh demands when the rest of the IWC is trying to come up with an 11th hour solution to save it from collapse," he said.

Japan is lobbying for a return to commercial whaling, which was banned in 1986. Its delegation in Santiago has warned that without progress on this issue, it is "difficult to see any future for the IWC".  In the past, Japan has threatened to withdraw from the organization if it does not allow hunting.

The Australian government staunchly opposes Tokyo's annual whale harvest in the Antarctic.  Canberra calls the hunt an unnecessary slaughter.  Japan says its whaling fleet is conducting scientific research.

At the start of the IWC's annual meeting this week in Santiago, the Chilean government proposed a permanent ban on whaling in the country's coastal waters.

The International Whaling Commission has the responsibility to conserve and manage whale populations.