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Pacific not cash-hungry; it wants action on climate change

Environment Minister Melissa Price (Lucas Koch)
Australian environment minister Melissa Price

KATERINA TEAIWA | The Conversation

CANBERRA – Australia’s environment minister Melissa Price was trending on Twitter last week – and not for any good environmental reasons.

Price was introduced to the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, during a dinner at a Canberra restaurant hosted by Labor Senator Pat Dodson. Tong has brought global attention to his country because of the existential challenges it faces from climate change and rising sea levels.

According to Dodson, Price made what many have deemed an insulting comment to Tong:

I know why you’re here. It’s for the cash. For the Pacific it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?

Others at the restaurant verified Dodson’s version of the incident. For his part, Tong said he has some hearing problems and others closer to Price could better hear what she said.

My response on Twitter was that in Kiribati, it’s rude to call out bad behaviour in public.

Maybe Price thought she was making a good Aussie joke. Or maybe she’d observed other members of her party laughing at the expense of the Pacific and wanted to crack one like the rest of the boys.

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong
Former Kiribati president Anote Tong

Peter Dutton’s foray into comedy in 2015 springs to mind. In response to a quip by then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott about how islanders are not good at being on time, Dutton said:

Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.

Water lapping at the door apparently doesn’t translate into concern over climate change and global warming – a matter of urgency for the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.

Rather than share the concerns of Pacific leaders on this issue, some Australian politicians have chosen to trivialise them and accuse Pacific nations of only being interested in a cash grab.

Just last month, Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald also accused Pacific nations of swindling money from Australia to address the effects of rising sea levels. The Sydney Morning Herald reported him saying:

They might be Pacific islanders, but there’s no doubting their wisdom and their ability to extract a dollar where they see it.

If Macdonald had been listening to the Canberra speech last month by Dame Meg Taylor, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, he would have heard a very different message:

It is absolutely essential that we work together to move the discussion with Australia to develop a pathway that will minimise the impacts of climate change for the future of all … including Australia.

So far this call has fallen on deaf ears.

Katerina Teaiwa is an associate professor at the Australian National University

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