Climate Change Action from the Top Western Torres Strait | Dr Aunty McRose Elu

Dr Aunty McRose Elu delivering an address at the Climate Integrity Summit 2024


We are trying to make our voices, our knowledge and wisdom heard by those with the power and the responsibility to create change to do better. We must not give up hope. We have no more decades to make these changes.

Dr Aunty McRose Elu addressed the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit on 20 March 2024.

First of all, as a Torres Strait Islander on Aboriginal land, I would like to pay my respect and honour for the custodians, the traditional owners of this area that assemble and may I address you all and also the owners in my language of KKY from Torres Strait Islands.

Last night I spoke briefly, the islands off the tip of Australia between and Papua New Guinea to the north. Almost forgotten islands, were once part of the Pacific many, many, many decades ago. Then became part of Queensland in 1879 and only in 1967 referendum that we became the second Indigenous peoples of this beautiful nation, Australia.

Minority within minority, not very many of Melanesian and Polynesian race of people, of our own culture, identity, spirituality, sacredness to the earth, to the sea, to the sky, clouds, the stars, the waves, the tides, the currents, heritage, identity, culture, traditions of our people. How we connect to the planet Earth.

God has given us those islands to nurture, to look after, to sustain us, to give us the courage, give us the strength. Not to be selfish, not to be greedy, but only take what we need and to share with others.

Not a money-making people, the people of vision, the people that connected very deep into the nature of this planet.

The language speaking people in the Four Winds. English is not our first language. It’s not my first language. I actually speak nine dialects.

It would be really nice, really in a way when you talk at such a forum as this in my language because then I will understand what I’m saying and I will also want you to understand what I’m saying, but unfortunately that is not.

Where is the accountability?

I’ve been part of this movement since 1988 or in the eighties. I was born on the island that is very low mangrove, far away from the coast of Australia. The nearest nation to our country is Papua New Guinea. 45 minutes on the flight, no shipping or passenger liner.

So therefore, if there was such a high tide that can happen to my island, the only nation that can come to our survival is Papua New Guinea, which we are not part of. We part this country, right on the doorstep of this nation where the government hold accountability for the protection and safety and risk of my people of the Torres Strait.

Never once or many years ago, there might be just a couple that came and visit, but never ever anybody from the government come and see what is happening on the top western islands in the Torres Strait, same as our Pacific Islands – how they suffer.

This morning I heard His Excellency Anote was talking about the Kiribati. They’re talking about, you can stand in the middle and the water is on both sides. Unlike there is an island in the Torres Strait, in the central group of Torres Strait, it’s called Poruma – Coconut Island. It’s the same as Tuvalu and Kiribati.

Torres Strait is a nation in a way there’s a shipping route, international shipping route, that takes coal and everything else from this country across overseas, polluting our waters, damaging our sea life, our sustainability.

We have to hunt further and further. We cannot garden anymore. Our resting places of our loved ones are washing out.

The big jets that fly across wasting their oil on the waters of the Torres Strait. Tiny islands are not many people and what is government doing? It’s right on their doorstep. Accountability and protection of these people of this earth with Torres Strait Islanders.

It is a global issue. It is also a national issue, as we heard this morning. How we devastated the countries, devastated the shores, devastated our livelihood of our people, of all nature.

Where is it – accountability?

I’d like to thank the Australian Institute for inviting me. I love speaking. If I go over time, just tap me on the shoulder. Otherwise, you’ll be here all afternoon.

Acting with integrity

Today I will speak to you about what I think it means to act with integrity, to create a safer earth for our soul and the Australian climate case.

We’ve got a class action case going on with the top western islands in the Torres Strait, an island called – my own island, Saibai and Boigu – where we are taking the federal government to court.

Climate change in the Torres Strait Islands and history of government’s response.

The connection we have to the waters of the Torres Strait. I’ve given you the history of Saibai and the Torres Strait. And what is happening right now? We cannot garden anymore. We cannot hunt near anymore. We rely on the supermarket and the ship that comes in with the cargo every fortnight. People have to wait when the stores get filled up because we cannot garden anymore. We cannot feed off the ground anymore. We cannot go out to the waters to hunt or fish dugong and turtle.

There’s a salt water absorb into my island. People get up every day, walking around in their routine, believing in God and believing in the creation, believing in the island that was given to them and just wait.

There is catastrophe on the islands. Scientists are saying that it could be around 2038 – these two islands will be underwater. At the moment, there’s overdue of the monsoon in the Torres Strait. Cyclones that sit on the coast of Australia from Northern Territory out of the Coral Sea in the Western Australia that affecting Torres Strait.

Very unusual. Normally by this time the ocean is nice and blue, no rain, just lovely and the set of islands – 17 of them inhabited and seven inundated.

The colour of the ocean is no longer there. Three weeks ago we were advised that there’s like a bush fire under the Barrier Reef. The colour of the corals are gone. The fish have got blisters. They’re not edible anymore.

One would say, how would these people survive? How would we live? It’s a daily process for my people to get up and do the daily routine, see the day go by and do their normal duties, feed their families, go to work, do what they can to live happily and have their spirit or belief that these are God-given islands to our people and remain there as such.

The government has not acted with integrity. They have known about this problem for a long time. They throw money at abandoned aid solutions and continue to cause the problem.

The class action forcing government to face the truth

Australia’s response to climate change is one of the weakest in the world. Our leaders say they care, but they ignore the scientific evidence and do things that will ensure our communities will go under the water. We are running out of time.

The climate change or case forcing government to face the truth. We have no time left, which is why I am standing with Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul in this class action case. We were taking the Commonwealth government to court in a big class action for failing to prevent climate change.

First time that anyone in Australia has argued that the whole of the federal government, not just one minister or agency, has a duty of care to protect people from climate harm. Under the bright lights of the courtroom, the government is forced to face the truth about the inaction on climate.

This case is based on a successful class action in the Netherlands against the Dutch government. If we win, then the court could order the government to stop causing in climate harm, by reducing emissions in line with scientific facts. No more political spin. This would be the win for everyone in Australia and the world.

We must all listen to First Nations voices. The community brought the case because we are not being heard. No more lies, no more band aid solutions. As First Nations people, we want to say we turn to the courts to have our say to the government – listen to us.

My hope is that the senior leaders in this place can listen to our people, find a way forward together. Indigenous communities here and in the Pacific have valuable knowledge, but don’t get a seat at the table. Interpreting First Nations cultural knowledge requires time for deep listening and respect. No one can even think or guess what Indigenous set of mind and thinking, the heart, what they are all about, and yet we face the world and we work with unity with lovely people. Trying.

My vision otherwise was all for the reconciliation of this country, to all of us to understand one another, come to this space and see this spirituality of the so-called God-given people on this planet earth.

What we think, how we feel, how we do things every day, how we embrace this beautiful beauty of this country, of this world.

My journey to Torres Strait climate advocate

My journey, my career path was not a smooth journey, but I’m ever so thankful that I came through the obstacles at first. But from the family that I come from, the discipline that I had on my childhood right up. When I know how to read and write, I embrace the world. I embrace this culture. I embrace the people, like you are. I see myself as no different in a way, but I want you to learn about me. I want you to know more about me because I think I have learned a lot more about you and I’m standing here today speaking to you in your language, which there are times I struggled.

The question always remains, why is this Auntie Rose at the PhD? How did she do it? You know, let me tell you one thing – it wasn’t very easy. But then I’m thinking, because I come from the family that have a vision and a chieftain clan that encouraged me and gave me strength to say that, do what you have to do, what is close to your heart, and serve the people of all nature, but you can. They were my father’s words and I continue to stand on his vision like I am here today, in front of you lovely people.

Spirituality remains in our people in the deep of the heart. My interpretation of our culture is that it is unfathomable. If you go to the Torres Strait, some years ago there was a naked diving and my father was one of the divers that can dive down so many metres down below, just to get the food for us. And I am ever so thankful for that.

We must listen to First Nation voices. The community brought the case because we are not being heard. We come to this with anger, love and care. We want the government to act with integrity on its climate change. No more lies, no more band aid solutions.

Solution is real cooperation, collaboration between governments, organisations and communities. For example, collaboration with Grata shows what we can achieve together when we listen properly and work together, maintaining hope and fighting together.

We are trying to make our voices, our knowledge and wisdom heard by those with the power and the responsibility to create change to do better. We must not give up hope. We have no more decades to make these changes.

When the case is done, we want government leaders of the highest levels to come to our home. This would be a big step towards climate justice and First Nations justice.

Let’s fight this together for the future of our beautiful world. That’s all. Thank you.

Dr Aunty McRose Elu, at the Climate Integrity Summit 2024

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