Will Australia abandon the Pacific on climate change?

The reaction in Pacific Island capitals to the leadership coup on 24 August that deposed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was much the same as that of many Australians. Shock, incomprehension and a degree of bemusement.

Question: “What’s the coup capital of the Pacific? Answer: Canberra, of course. Four prime ministers on both sides of politics deposed over the course of eight years, not at the ballot box but knifed by their own colleagues.

Turnbull himself called it “a form of madness” – an extraordinary week of bloodletting in the Liberal Party room in which the moderate conservative at first held on, then looked like being toppled by right wing hardliner, Peter Dutton, and then blocked Dutton by helping to engineer the succession to a less right wing figure in the form of Scott Morrison, his Treasurer.

The revolving door also saw the departure of the two ministers most familiar to Pacific leaders.

Julie Bishop resigned as Foreign Minister after she failed to secure the leadership herself. And Pacific Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was one of a number of MPs whose dramatic resignations preceded the leadership spill.

Bishop has been replaced as Foreign Minister by Turnbull’s Defence Minister, Marise Payne, who was representing Morrison at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru at the start of September.

Regardless of his “no show” at the Forum, it is Morrison’s decision not to reappoint a dedicated Pacific minister that is raising the most eyebrows.

Fierravanti-Wells’ Ministerial role has been downgraded to that of an “assistant minister,” formerly known as parliamentary secretary. The new incumbent, Anne Ruston, raised even more eyebrows when she said she had “no idea” why she had been chosen.

From a Pacific perspective, it is hardly an encouraging start to the Morrison era. And even Fierravanti-Wells – the departing minister – warned that Morrison is jeopardising Australia’s influence in the region as China woos island nations with infrastructure and loans. 

“At a time of growing contestability and strategic competition in our Pacific region, the downgrading of the portfolio to a parliamentary secretary role sends the wrong message. The Pacific deserves the highest attention and our allies look to us to ensure that this this happens,” she said.

A very Australian coup

Malcolm Turnbull’s removal came amid a bitter ideological struggle between moderates and ultra conservatives for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party, which governs in coalition with the Nationals and along with Labour, is one of the two traditional ruling parties in Australia.

Founded in the 1940s by Australia’s longest serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, the Liberals were always described by Australia’s second longest serving prime minister, John Howard, as a “broad church” capable of accommodating a range of conservative beliefs.

But Turnbull – who once tried to secure a Senate seat from Labour – has always been suspected by his Liberal opponents of trying to move the party to the left, of being a soft left politician in conservative clothing.

Many of his social views mirrored those on the opposition benches – a supporter of same sex marriage, Australia becoming a republic and worst of all in the minds of the ultra conservatives, a strong belief in human-induced climate change.

With his demise and Scott Morrison’s ascension, many Liberal MPs have swung their “broad church” decisively back towards worshipping on the right. And they have a distinct lack of zeal for more ambitious climate action.

Scott who?
Morrison is best known in Australia for two things: “stopping the boats” when he was Immigration Minister by sending asylum-seekers to Manus Island and Nauru. And for a startling incident in the Australian Parliament last year in which he waved around a chunk of coal, and despite all evidence to the contrary, gleefully declared it a “clean energy” source.

How many Australians share their new Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for coal remains to be seen when the electorate finally gets to make its own pronouncement on the Turnbull coup.

That could be as late as next May if Morrison manages to last the distance, with just a single seat majority in the parliament, and perhaps even sooner if the Liberals suffer a shock loss in the upcoming by-election for the retiring Turnbull’s Sydney seat.

Morrison is not to be under-estimated because of his successful stewardship of the Australia economy as Treasurer for the past three years and he has virtual hero status in some quarters for doing what Labour couldn’t do and “stop the boats.”

Yet with neither of the two things for which he is best remembered – making Australia’s asylum seekers a wider Pacific problem and promoting a proven “dirty energy” source – does Morrison appear to be in step with mainstream islands opinion

Bainimarama weighs in
In the aftermath of his ascension to Australia’s top job, Pacific leaders and policy makers have been scrambling to work out what it all means. And especially looking for signs of Morrison’s commitment to decisive action on climate change, given its critical importance to island nations and the well being of their people and economies.

Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s Prime Minister and the President of COP23 – the ongoing UN climate negotiations – confronted the issue head on in a letter congratulating his new Australian counterpart on his appointment.

Citing the “catastrophic potential” of the changing climate on the entire world and the “devastating impacts” already being felt not only in the Pacific but Australia itself through heat waves and bushfires, Bainimarama was characteristically frank:

“In this global campaign, we cannot settle for business as usual and we certainly cannot tolerate any backward steps”, he declared.

Within days, the Morrison Government was also under pressure at the Pacific Island Forum meeting in Nauru to sign a joint security declaration pledging support for the 2015 Paris Agreement and describing climate change “as the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing” of the region.

So the heat is on Morrison from his Pacific partners on one side and his conservative colleagues on the other, many of whom want to water down or abandon the greenhouse gas emissions commitments Australia made under the Paris Agreement.

In his letter to Morrison, Frank Bainimarama called for Australia to do more, not less – “increased ambition in your commitments under the Paris Agreement” and “recognition that stronger, short-term climate action and a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 is vital to the Australian people, the security of your neighbours in the Pacific and the wellbeing of every global citizen.”

Bainimarama also made a subtle contrast between Australia’s attitude to climate change with that of its biggest trading partner, China, when he reminded Morrison that any backward step in Australia’s commitment would put it out of step with China and the Pacific’s other partners.

“Our partners such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Germany, Japan, India and China have continued their support for the Paris Agreement and are building that commitment into trade, economic and security relationships. I look forward to continuing that work with Australia as well”, he said.

Where coal is king
The release of the Bainimarama letter set off a Twitter firestorm of support, much of it from within Australia itself. Some contributors assured the COP23 President that before Morrison could do any significant backsliding, he would lose office to the Labour opposition, which has opened up a big lead over the Coalition in opinion polls since the Turnbull coup.

But that could be many months away or not at all, if the electorate warms to Morrison in the meantime and Labour loses again.

To date, the Australian leader has avoided directly stating his personal position on climate change. But he is generally assumed to be a sceptic of human-induced warming, not only by overtly promoting coal but being part of the general repudiation of decisive climate action in his own party that brought him to power in the first place.

The Liberals have literally torn themselves apart over climate change, in a frenzy fuelled by alarm about the electoral effect of high electricity prices, the rise of ultra-right independents challenging the Coalition’s hold on the conservative vote and their eagerness to tap the riches of the country’s largest coal deposit in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

Taking the Trumpian path?
The immediate trigger for Turnbull’s removal was his National Energy Guarantee in which he tried in vain to balance the demand for cheaper energy with Australia’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to cut its emissions by 26 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

For its part, Labour is pledging a 45 per cent reduction so the political choice for Australian voters when they do get the opportunity to have their say is stark.

Ever trying to placate the right wing elements in his Party, Turnbull – once a passionate climate campaigner – went so far in his final days as to drop emissions reduction as a consideration of his energy legislation – something that had already raised alarm bells in Pacific Island capitals.

Yet his own backsliding wasn’t enough to save him. And the niggling perception that he was moving the Liberals to the left gave rise to a right wing putsch to try to take Australia down the same path as Donald Trump’s America. And in particular, for Australia to follow the US lead and withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement altogether.

Even with Turnbull out of the way, leaving the Paris Agreement remains the specific demand of ultra conservative Liberals like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. And given that their preferred candidate for the leadership, Peter Dutton, was eventually beaten by Scott Morrison by only five votes, Morrison is under acute pressure from within and all eyes are on him to see which way he turns.

As Islands Business went to press, he had yet to formally declare his hand.

On his first prime ministerial tour of drought affected areas of Queensland, he refused to be drawn on whether the drought was linked to human-induced climate change, prompting his critics to accuse him of giving the issue “the middle finger.”

Unnamed senior government sources were quoted later as having said that Morrison would resist any internal push to walk away from Australia’s commitment to the Paris targets, partly because it would jeopardise a free trade deal with the European Union. But any thought that Australia will take more ambitious action to cut emissions seems wishful in the extreme.

The prospect of Australia or any other nation for that matter joining the US in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is a nightmare scenario not only for Pacific climate leaders like Frank Bainimarama and Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands but for much of the rest of the world as well.

Trump as the sole global spoiler is one thing. But were America’s allies like Australia to follow him, it could easily produce a domino effect in which the battle for concerted and collective action s significantly undermined, if not lost. 

Fiji ramps up the pressure
None of these challenges have shaken the determination of Fiji’s COP23 team to keep up the pressure for more ambitious action.

Despite the looming election at home, Frank Bainimarama is spending a large part of September fulfilling his global  responsibilities as COP President. First at the latest round of climate negotiations in Bangkok, then at Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit in California and finally as a significant presence at Climate Week at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Bainimarama regards the California Summit as especially important because it brings to life the concept of the Grand Coalition for climate action that has been the centrepiece of his presidency – the notion of national governments working
with states, regions and cities to achieve tangible and lasting progress; bringing its energy, enterprise and wealth to the task of developing more innovative and transferrable clean energy solutions and more effective carbon storage; and of tapping the grassroots activism, enthusiasm and passion of civil society and billions of ordinary people around the world.

All this is keeping Bainimarama away from Fiji at a critical time in the countdown to the national election sometime before 21 November.

Yet as he sees it, it is simply too important for the future of the entire world to do otherwise and he regards his COP presidency above all as mission to ensure the survival of the Fijian people and every Pacific Islander.

Bainimarama certainly has the strong backing of a host of global climate leaders ranging from France’s President Emmanuel Macron to The Terminator turned climate warrior, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because while a small nation
like Fiji can’t hope to force the industrial giants of the world into more ambitious action, Bainimarama’s strenuous advocacy has demonstrably helped place climate action at the top of the global agenda.

The importance of the Talanoa Dialogue
Of all the many pluses that have flowed from Fiji becoming the first Small Island Developing State to preside over the UN negotiations, undoubtedly the most important is the legacy it will leave behind through the Talanoa Dialogue, which captured the imagination of delegates at the May negotiating sessions of COP in Bonn and seems set to become a permanent feature of the UN system.

Based on the Pacific concept of respectful and blameless personal engagement being the best way to achieve accountability and change, the Talanoa concept has taken off as a means of helping to achieve higher ambition in the climate struggle and to raise the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that every nation has already made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Talanoa sessions have asked for responses to three simple questions. Where are we? Where do we need to be? And how do we get there? Sessions have since taken place across the world in locations as disparate as Belgium, South Africa and Uruguay and Talanoa sessions were also slated as centrepieces of September’s California Global Climate
Action Summit and COP24 in Poland in December.

Fiji and Poland have been given formal joint carriage of the Talanoa Dialogue. And as Frank Bainimarama sees it, it is a critical tool in achieving more ambition all the way to the 2019 Climate Summit that has been convened by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gueterres, in New York next September.

That summit has been specifically called to ask the nations of the world to increase the ambition of their NDCs to meet the scale of the climate threat, which is now judged to be even more grave than when the Paris Agreement was reached three years ago.

Ever since he assumed the COP Presidency, the Fijian leader has been pressing for the adoption of the more ambitious target of the Paris Agreement, which is to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above that of the pre-industrial age. Yet on the current NDCs that have been submitted, the world is said to be on course for an average global temperature of at least three degrees by century’s end.

In the Pacific -the world’s most vulnerable region with the predicted loss already of three entire nations, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands – that would spell catastrophe. 

So at every opportunity, Bainimarama has been stressing the urgency of more ambition. And even after he surrenders the COP presidency to Poland in December – assuming he wins the coming election – intends to take the fight on behalf of Pacific Island nations all the way to the New York summit and beyond.

The importance of Pacific solidarity

Having told the Fijian Parliament back in March that “God helps those who help themselves,” Bainimarama is also adamant that Pacific nations must play their own part in raising ambition.

Fiji intends to raise its own NDC and is hoping that its neighbours will do the same with the assistance of the NDC  Regional Hub that is another COP23 legacy.

But above all, Bainimarama believes the Pacific – the island nations and their larger neighbours – must present a united front if they are to make their voices heard above the competing agendas in the rest of the world over the coming months. Fiji convened meetings of Pacific leaders and negotiators last July and October before the COP23 in Bonn in November, and convened them again this July at Suva’s Climate Action Pacific Partnership Conference.

Right from the start, the Fijian COP presidency has stressed that to be effective, the regional and global response to climate change must be concerted and effective. And while Frank Bainimarama has expressed disappointment at Donald Trump’s scepticism and especially his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, he made a point of saying that the door was always open to the US President to join the fight.

The same applies to the climate sceptics in Australia. Because as time goes by, it’s a “dead cert” – as the Aussies say – that if they are not feeling the political heat right now, they soon will be. Because as the COP23 president also continually stresses: “We are all vulnerable and we must all act.”

Graham Davis (gdavis1500@gmail.com) is a Fijian member of the COP23 communications team.