Morrison’s Pacific step-up means nothing without real climate action

How good (really) is Scott Morrison?

Disappointingly, for Pacific leaders attending this week’s Pacific Islands Forum, the answer is becoming all too apparent, at least when it comes to the issue that matters most to the island states: the inexorably encroaching seas of the climate emergency.

Even before Morrison touched down in Tuvalu—one of the world’s smallest, most unique and, climate-wise, most vulnerable democracies—it’s clear that there is no prospect of any change in the Australian government’s abiding commitment to the coal industry or position on carbon emissions.

Australian prime ministers have a long track record of rarely failing to disappoint their Pacific islands counterparts, particularly at Pacific Islands Forums, which culturally are run on the Pacific principles of collective consultation and consensus—inapposite to Australia’s competitive spirit and donor-nation instinct for calling the shots.

But this week’s disappointment will hit harder than most. For the island states, which have been dealing with the very real impact of climate change for more than a decade, have an acute sense of how little time is actually left to do anything meaningful about what are already for them existentially high stakes.

Adding salt to the wound, ever since becoming prime minister, Morrison has actively encouraged the expectation that his government’s approach to the Pacific was going to be different; a real and genuine shift to a consultative and equal partnership.

For the most part, Morrison has been putting his money where his mouth is.

Already chalking up three visits to Pacific countries, one of his first actions as prime minister was to turbo-charge the Pacific step-up policy. Albeit with one eye on China, he has massively boosted the resources for the region available to the Australian departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade (although much of the latter was pulled directly from the existing, already much trounced aid budget).

Drawing on his personal insights and close church connections to the region, Morrison has purposefully peppered his public commentary on Australia’s relationship with the region, including a formal address at the University of the South Pacific in the Fijian capital of Suva earlier this year, with references to the shared heritage and future Australians and Pacific islanders enjoy, and the need for us to listen and work closely with our island neighbours.

‘Australia is not a remote observer of the Pacific, it is our home also and we’ve got a stake in what happens here’, Morrison told the audience of USP students from across the region. ‘So we stand with you as we look to those challenges. We know that to succeed, we must work together … We’ll do it by partnership, we’ll do it with patience and we’ll do it with respect.’

In the audience that day was Morrison’s Fijian counterpart, the former naval officer and army commander Frank Bainimarama, whom he has gone out of his way to cultivate. In January, Morrison became the first Australian prime minister to visit Fiji since Bainimarama took the reins of the nation, off the back of George Speight’s coup in 2000.

During the same visit, the two men announced the so-called vuvale partnership, using the Fijian word for family to articulate their intentions for a deeper Australian–Fijian relationship.

Pacific islanders, many only a generation away from living lives where survival was never quite a given, are acute observers of their fellow human beings. Australia’s actions (or lack of action) on climate change, and Morrison’s in particular, this week will ring out far louder than the most perfect pronunciation of vuvale.

Bainimarama is also the immediate past president of the UN’s leading climate body, COP (Conference of the Parties), and this year is attending the Pacific Islands Forum for the first time since declaring Australia and New Zealand should be ousted from the peak body some years ago.

In the lead-up to the forum, he reiterated his position on climate change: ‘Put simply, the case for coal as an energy source cannot continue to be made if every nation is to meet the net zero emission target by 2050 that has been set by the UN secretary general and every other responsible leader of the climate struggle.’

No doubt the well-informed Alex Hawke, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific and Morrison’s close political protégé, will have held the fort as best he could at the forum’s pre-meets and climate conference in Tuvalu. But Canberra’s early announcement of a climate change and oceans package, including $500 million over five years from 2020 to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and climate and disaster resilience, will have not helped our cause.

The timing of the announcement completely gazumps the key collective formal and informal consultations of the forum, particularly the traditional leaders’ retreat, where the officials are left behind for the day and the heads of government get to eyeball each other.

The package also totally misses the point. It is Australia, not themselves, that the Pacific wants to see fast-track the shift to renewable resources. It’s carbon emissions reduction from Australia and the rest of the world, not the Pacific, they most urgently desire.

In an indication of just how serious this rift could be, and unusually for the Pacific, the host of this year’s forum, Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, didn’t hold back in expressing his disappointment to journalists covering the opening session, before he’d even had a chance to welcome his Australian counterpart.

‘No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse not to do the right thing, including not opening your coal mines. That is the thing we want to see.’

With the advent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Australia is no longer the only big donor at play in the region, and we can no longer presume the same level of leverage we have enjoyed in the past. Without concrete actions to reduce the rate of climate change to put on the table, the PM might as well have brought his infamous lump of parliamentary coal to lay before the region’s leaders.

For all his personal connections and genuine enthusiasm for engaging in a more meaningful way, the PM won’t get the game-changer he’s seeking if he can’t find a way to heed the Pacific’s call for greater action on the causes, and not just the effects, of climate change.