Alienating the Pacific

How should Australia conduct its business in the Pacific? How should an elephant behave when meeting with mice? How does it avoid squashing them? 

Scott Morrison says that as Australia’s prime minister he needs to tread carefully in Pacific Forum meetings and not be the proverbial bull in the china shop. But less than three years ago he set his country apart from others by refusing to join a consensus of all other members until his exceptional needs were met. 

Unlike some Australians, Pacific islanders don’t argue over climate change because they see it in plain sight. Most of them live just metres above sea level on shorelines or coral atolls. They once knew how to live with the ocean’s moods, but are powerless in the face of sea level rise now approaching 4 mm a year.

That rising sea level is felt most keenly in the form of flooding tides and storm surges, which now happen around 10 times more often than back in the mid-20th century. It threatens the sovereignty of a few especially vulnerable island nations, like Tuvalu. Half the usable land of some atolls has already been lost to flooding and salinity.

The people of the Pacific are so fearful of the rising ocean that they rate climate change – not foreign military bases – as the region’s single biggest security threat. That was affirmed in the Boe Declaration, signed in 2018 by members of the Pacific Islands Forum, including Australia.

The following year leaders of those countries met in Tuvalu. Scott Morrison attended, and was asked in the spirit of Boe to consider a request from all other Forum members that Australia reduce its use of coal. His response – sorry, but no – nearly tore the meeting apart.

The day after the meeting Morrison told journalists that he respected and understood Pacific nations’ “deep sensitivity” to “these issues” – he avoided using words like climate or sea level – adding: “It’s not a dinner-party conversation here in the Pacific; it’s a real conversation and we had a real conversation last night.”

That was putting it mildly. Morrison’s refusal to pursue a stronger climate policy brought an angry reaction from leaders known for exceptional politeness. Host prime minister Enele Sopoaga told him that “you are concerned about saving the economy; I am concerned about saving my people.” He disclosed that the forum’s elder statesman, Tonga’s Akilisi Pohiva, was brought to tears during the debate.

Pohiva was revered throughout the Polynesian Pacific for his decades-long battle for Tongan democracy, during which he was jailed several times. In 2013 he was given the global award of Defender of Democracy. His passion for urgent climate action, with his health failing, profoundly affected the Tuvalu meeting, according to Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama.

Pohiva died four weeks later, leaving a gaping wound in the Pacific psyche. West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda said he would be remembered as a “great statesman”. And to the Solomon Islands’ Manasseh Sogavare, he was “a dear friend, … a great Pacific leader and an icon for Pacific democracy”. 

The origins of last week’s Solomons-China pact go back to Australian attempts to prevent the islands allying with Taiwan in the Howard era. We’ll never know what sealed the switch to Beijing in 2019 – money was almost certainly involved, for instance – but it’s worth considering that formal recognition happened a month after the Tuvalu meeting and just four days after Pohiva’s death. 

In Australia our sketchy knowledge of Scott Morrison’s performance at the Forum was quickly blanked out by a cascade of emergencies at home – drought, fire, pandemic and flood – driven largely by the changing climate that had so distressed Akilisi Pohiva.

We will continue to pay a heavy price in the Pacific as long as we treat its people’s genuine fears for their future with the breezy indifference shown by Scott Morrison. Our refusal to put our weight behind their Boe Declaration says a great deal about Australia’s Pacific commitment, none of it complimentary.

Going into the 2022 election, both the Coalition and Labor claim their emissions policies are viable, but that rings hollow without policies to shut down coal, oil and gas industries, rapidly and decisively. Emissions and mining are discussed separately, but never together. 

Labor must share responsibility for the ludicrous, paralysing climate policy mess we have got ourselves into. If it cannot find the courage to articulate a clear plan to shut down fossil fuels, more independents in parliament may be our only hope. Meanwhile we continue to dishonor both Pacific people and our own.

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