The sinking of the Sea Shepherd boat Ady Gil in the Southern Ocean has clearly concentrated a few minds. The Prime Minister, John Key, is talking of a diplomatic solution to end Japanese whaling, which he will propose at this year's International Whaling Commission meeting in Hawaii. He had hoped to further this with the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, before her visit to New Zealand was postponed.

Across the Tasman, something is also stirring. The Australian Government says it is making "unprecedented" diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue. Could it be that a breakthrough is imminent?

Mr Key has been coy about the details of his plan, which will now be pursued with US officials. The Australians have also been silent, but have discerned sufficient traction to make the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, postpone an election pledge to take Japan to either the International Court of Justice or the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In at least some part, their positions may relate to a change in the Japanese Government. The present Japanese whaling venture in the Southern Ocean is the last under a budget allocated by the Liberal Democratic Party.

There have been mixed messages from Tokyo since the Democratic Party of Japan took power. The Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, said this month that he did not see any need for a review of Japanese policy. "We have a tradition in Japan where we have been eating whale meat. It would be a different story if it were an endangered species... but, if not, I think the average Japanese would like to consume whale meat into the future."

That, however, was not the line of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He has said that he does not like whale meat, a sign, perhaps, that he is willing to break with a tradition that owes much to the meat's symbolism in times of war and hardship. He has also stated that his first budget will feature the elimination of the type of subsidies and perks for retired bureaucrats that have allowed whaling to continue. This may rankle with elderly Japanese, who are the main eaters of whale meat and regard it as culturally important. But it will probably cause few ripples among the country's young. They are removed from the tradition of Showa nostalgia, which drives the whaling, and are becoming more susceptible to global conservation campaigns.

Much of the international diplomatic effort, led by the US, will, obviously, be directed towards encouraging Mr Hatoyama to abandon whaling on the basis of Budget constraints. Such a course would allow Japan to back away of its own accord, rather than appear to be bowing to international pressure. In the way of diplomacy, it may be that some carrots will be offered to Japan to offset any perceived loss of face.

This country's Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, appears cautiously optimistic that progress can be made. He notes that every other approach has failed, and "the diplomatic process is the only one that offers some prospect of significant success". Not only have other approaches failed, but direct confrontation has reached a point of considerable peril. The sinking of the Ady Gill was an incident in the making for the best part of a decade. Luck, rather than good management, meant none of the six-man crew was killed in the collision with a Japanese security vessel attached to the whaling fleet.

Both sides in the Southern Ocean have been guilty of upping the ante. Human life is now at risk. It has reached a point where cooler heads must occupy the centre stage. Some serious diplomacy is clearly being undertaken behind closed doors. Hopefully, it will bear fruit this year, and the brutal whale slaughter will finally end.