Though Australia’s regional strategy increasingly focuses on the Pacific, regional leaders have grown distrustful of Canberra. Proactive climate policy may win some back.
Climate change dominated Australia’s most recent federal election, with voters ditching the conservative establishment in favour of progressive candidates (namely Greens and Independents) campaigning for climate action. Australian voters have desired greater climate action for years, even taking to the streets to demand more from the climate laggards that occupied Parliament House for the better part of a decade.
While the battle for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-aligned climate policies is still underway and will take centre stage in the next Parliament, Australia’s politicians and policymakers should not be afraid to look further afield in the pursuit of global decarbonisation. The Pacific has been vocal in its support for action on climate change, a phenomenon that provides an existential threat to the region.
Growing Mistrust in the Pacific
Under the previous Coalition government, Australia’s relationship with the Pacific soured, due not only to a decline in funding, but also a lack of empathy and general disregard for the material and existential concerns of Pacific Islanders. This was apparent in 2019, when the Pacific Island Forum ended as an abject failure, as Australia refused to sign on to the Tuvalu Declaration. Australia’s lack of desire to commit to the declaration ‒ which called for the rapid transition away from coal and fossil fuel-powered electricity ‒ flagged Australia’s true intentions for the Pacific. To many Pacific states Australia was the paternalistic autocrat, able to provide aid and security if nations abide by Australia’s rules and interests, but unwilling to compromise on issues pivotal to the livelihoods of its subjects.
Thus, despite rhetorically committing to improving infrastructure and local economies, the Pacific Step Up, launched by the Turnbull Government in 2017, has failed to engage with Pacific Island communities in good faith. Offering funding for climate mitigation strategies can only go so far when you are also the third largest global exporter of fossil fuels. This approach is akin to offering an umbrella to someone you are hosing down, and was seen as such by Pacific leaders. The Australian government’s refusal to come to the table on climate negotiations and its continued use and the expansion of its fossil fuel capacities, seen most notably in the Morrison Government’s “gas-led recovery,” has quite obviously created serious tensions in the region. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach has worn patience thin, and it is no surprise that Pacific Island states have distanced themselves from Australia and sought to acquire aid and economic assistance from willing collaborators who see value in the region.
The recent indignant response of Australian policymakers and political commentators to the enhanced cooperation between the Pacific and China has only affirmed the suspicions of Pacific Islanders. In criticising sovereign states making economic, trade, and security decisions based upon their perceived interests, Australia has made itself out to be the paternalistic gatekeeper of foreign policy in the Pacific. While recent changes in government and approach to the region most definitely put Australia good stead, if policymakers are to reconcile with the Pacific and strengthen diplomatic and economic ties, a radical change in the approach to climate policy offers a unique opportunity (and threat).
A Political Crossroads
What has been a serious point of contention between the Pacific Islands and Australia, climate policy now offers an opportunity for a diplomatic reset. Through the creation of a regional climate conference, such as an extension of the existing Pacific Islands Forum, engaged with in good faith by Australia, there is an opportunity to strengthen relations. Such a conference should allow for the creation of a joint declaration that allows for the concerns of the Pacific to be heard, with constructive engagement and commitment to policies limiting global warming to 1.5°C demonstrated by Australia. An annual meeting with the establishment of working groups would allow for accountability, informed policymaking and improved interstate relations.
As the third largest exporter of fossil fuels, Australia has the potential to make a real contribution to tackling climate change and addressing an existential threat to the region. Complementing this with investment in the region’s renewable capabilities and climate mitigation strategies would communicate Australia’s political will to take collaborative action as a regional power. Australia’s most recent commitment to climate action, seen in the Climate Action Bill, is a welcome step in the right direction, but it must be a platform for further emissions reductions to strengthen regional ties.
However, a continued lack of substantive action on climate change will likely push Pacific leaders to re-evaluate their commitments to Australia. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who has criticised Australia as having “a dangerous addiction to coal” in the past, has made clear the intended pragmatism of Pacific Island Nations on this issue, saying “geopolitical point scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas” at the recent conference of Pacific Island Foreign Ministers in Suva. Continuing existing trends, the Pacific Islands will most likely leverage their relationships and commitments to various nations to win foreign aid, investment and potentially action on climate change. If Australia cannot offer substantial politics and good faith politics, it will only further alienate the Pacific.
Thus, Australian policymakers must make hay while the sun shines. The Australian public has elected a parliament with a mandate for strong action on climate change, the ball is in the court of the Members of the 47th Parliament of Australia.
Drew Beacom is an Intern at the NSW Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is a fifth year student at the University of Sydney, studying Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (International and Global Studies), and has a background in environmental politics.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.