Published daily by the Lowy Institute

To lead in the Pacific, Australia must lead on climate change

Australia’s position as the world’s largest coal exporter does not sit easy with many Pacific Islanders.

Betio harbour, 2008 (Photo: jopolopy/Flickr)
Betio harbour, 2008 (Photo: jopolopy/Flickr)

Richard Marles' address to the Lowy Institute this week was delivered with a rare eloquence. Marles is an impressive orator with genuine knowledge of the region gained over many years. As a colleague of mine commented quietly afterwards, if this is what Marles is like in opposition, imagine what he would be like in government. Indeed, Marles did more than ponder Australia's role in the Pacific; he also went a long way toward establishing his credentials as a future Foreign Minister. But his address ignored the elephant in the room when it comes to leading in the Pacific.

Part of the attraction of Marles' speech was its classical construction, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy of three parts. In the prologue, Marles painted a vivid picture of the very personal problems faced by Pacific Islanders. He transported the audience into the dense and basic living conditions endured by those who live in Betio on South Tarawa in Kiribati. That a person could live in such conditions 'deeply challenges your understanding of the ways life on this earth can be led', he said. 'I've seen refugee camps in Africa, slums in Bangladesh. But the worst human circumstances I've ever witnessed are here on the islet of Betio.' The scene was set.

Act Two was a comprehensive analysis of the complexities surrounding Australian involvement in the region. Marles convincingly argued that for too long Australia has focused on foreign policy priorities in Europe, the US, even the Middle East, while ignoring the countries on our doorstep. That is not to say Australia is not engaged in the region; the Pacific is the largest regional recipient of Australian development assistance, a sum that far surpasses other donor nations. Yet, Marles argued, the commitment of resources to Pacific Island nations in the absence of a vision or debate regarding Australia's role in the region has led to a 'holding pattern policy in the Pacific'.

The most striking aspect of Act Two was how Marles gave the most articulate and passionate description of the effect of climate change in the region I have heard from any politician of either major party. 'For countries that consist of thin strips of land only a few metres above sea level, climate change is an existential issue. It is happening now,' he said. 'When we don't uphold our responsibility to speak with a Pacific voice, as has been the case on climate change in recent years, our reputation suffers.' The political courage to acknowledge both the effects of climate change and Australia's past failings to show leadership in this area should not be underestimated. Marles deserves credit for highlighting this important point.

Act Two concluded with a call for Australia to show greater regional leadership to support neighbouring Pacific Island nations. The case had been made and the audience was enthralled. All that remained was for Marles to offer solid proposals for Australia to provide greater leadership in the region.

Act Three of the speech should have provided a conclusion that demonstrated Marles and the Opposition could indeed provide the visionary leadership for engagement in the Pacific that he claims Australia has failed to show over the last few decades. Instead, Marles proposed slightly broadening the scope of the Defence Cooperation Program, which Australia has with the three Pacific Island nations that have a defence force, and extending 'government actions to assist the functions of government in the Pacific'. As Australia does both of these things already, in essence the sum total of Marles' recommendations to address the issues he had so beautifully articulated was to do a little bit more of what we already do. After such a strong speech, it was sadly underwhelming.

The key omission from Marles' policy proposals was climate change. As I have written before, Australia's position as the world's largest coal exporter does not sit easy with many Pacific Islanders. Having identified the existential threat climate change poses to the very nations Marles wants to support, he made no mention of combating it. Indeed, when a questioner asked him about tuna fishing and climate change after his address, he chose to ignore the latter.

Marles is obviously a talented orator and a politician of conviction who cares about the Pacific region. He wants Australia to do more for our island neighbours and has been rightly applauded for this address. Yet passion alone will not be enough. We need our politicians to also articulate sound policy proposals that will comprise the very vision that Marles has called for.

My colleague Jonathon Pryke has outlined some very practical proposals, which I wholeheartedly support. But without leadership on climate change, which includes the re-examination of our coal policy, the region will not see Australia as a true leader that speaks with a Pacific voice.

Pacific Research Program

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