Short-term thinking is often a feature of Australian domestic politics but when it comes to foreign policy, we’ve usually played the long game. Not any more. The Morrison Government is placing 1000 potential coal jobs ahead of its ‘Pacific Step Up’, announced in 2017 to counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
But, like US engagement with Asia and the UK’s engagement with the EU, Australia’s long and strong relationship with its Pacific neighbours cannot be taken for granted.
Australia has a lot of problems in the Pacific. Tony Abbott made domestic political hay from cutting our aid budget. Unsurprisingly, other countries, including China, have begun filling the vacuum Australia left. It will now cost us far more than Tony Abbott ever ‘saved’ to restore our leadership position in our region.
At a diplomatic level the insults have flown thick and fast. Peter Dutton famously laughed with Tony Abbott about water lapping at the door of our Pacific neighbours. And our former Environment Minister Melissa Price, reportedly told former Kiribati President Anote Tong: “I know why you’re here. It is for the cash. For the Pacific, it is always about the cash. I have my cheque book here. How much do you want?”
And then, there is climate change. Although low-lying Pacific Island nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati have done less to cause climate change than almost any other country, they will pay the highest imaginable price unless drastic action is taken to prevent fossil fuel-induced sea level rise.
Successive Australian governments have ignored polite requests from Pacific leaders to do more to reduce Australia’s emissions and for Australia to support more ambitious action in international climate forums. But for decades Australia has put the future (and profits) of our fossil fuel exporters ahead of the future survival of the Pacific nations.
But now the gloves are coming off. Three weeks ago, Pacific leaders signed a communique calling on Australia to stop building new coal mines, and to not use accounting tricks such as dodgy carbon credits, to meet its Paris commitments.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison landed in Tuvalu last week for the Pacific Island Forum, he was welcomed by children sitting in a pool of water to highlight the desperate future those children face. Statements by Pacific leaders were equally blunt. Tuvalu Prime Minster Enele Sopoaga told Morrison: “You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia … I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu”. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Morrison was “very insulting, very condescending, not good for the relationship”.
Last November, Morrison declared “Australia will step up in the Pacific and take our engagement with the region to a new level … The ties that bind us to our Pacific family extend beyond security and economic cooperation”.
But it is now clear that, like so much Australian domestic policy, Morrison’s ‘Pacific Step Up’ is over before it even began.
As if last week’s diplomatic debacle wasn’t enough, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack then said he gets “annoyed” when people in “those sorts of [Pacific] countries point the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resource sector so that, you know, they can continue to survive”.
While it is true that Australia is a major source of aid to the Pacific, it is not true that aid defines our relationship. Those who think it does should keep in mind that China and India will have far deeper pockets than Australia in the decades to come.
Our relationship in the Pacific is instead based on good relationships. Good relationships are based on listening and respect. Pacific leaders have never demanded Australia shut down its resource sector, but they have asked us to stop expanding our coal production.
Not only have our politicians and media trivialised and misrepresented this simple request, but our government has made it clear that the potential for a new coal mine to create 1000 jobs in Central Queensland is more important than the literal survival of some of our nearest neighbours.
Many rolled their eyes, but said nothing, while the Australian government shredded its free market credentials in its repeated attempts to subsidise new coal mines. Will people sit as quietly as we shred our foreign policy credibility in the name of those same mines? Time will tell.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute.