Environment Minister Melissa Price has been accused of offending a key Pacific leader by declaring the region was “always” seeking cash from Australia, sparking a political dispute over her alleged remarks at a Canberra restaurant on Tuesday night…
Mr [Anote] Tong, who led Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, was dining with Labor senator Pat Dodson and others at La Rustica restaurant in the Canberra suburb of Kingston and was introduced to Ms Price, who was dining with staff close by.
One witness to the conversation told Fairfax Media that Ms Price discussed a possible meeting with Mr Tong and then made a remark about demands for cash.
Ms Price asked Mr Tong why he was in Canberra and was told by Senator Dodson that the former Kiribati leader was in Australia to talk about climate change and was hoping to have a meeting with her.
“Is it about the cash?” Ms Price replied, according to the witness.
“It’s always about the cash. I’ve got my chequebook over there. How much do you want?”
A spokesman for Ms Price denied this account and said the minister told Mr Tong that Australia cared very deeply about the Pacific, before suggesting they set up a meeting at some point.
Dodson has written to Price (cc-ing the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition) to demand an apology for Tong: “You should be aware that president Tong is a well-known international figure, close to president Obama and other world leaders, especially on [issues affecting] our Pacific region… He is globally known as an advocate for action on climate change. He is a Nobel Prize nominee and was the leader of his nation for over a decade. He deserves an apology.”
Well, we would not want to call into question the motives of someone who is close to (former) president Obama and who was a Nobel Prize nominee (like Donald Trump). Levity aside, if Price did say what she is said to have said – which she denies she has said – she should not have said it. But only because it’s not polite, not because it’s not true.
The Pacific has a love-hate relationship with Australia. Smaller countries tend to resent their much bigger neighbours. In this case the resentment is even stronger because many of the Pacific island states rely to a large extent on Australian’s foreign aid to make their budgetary ends meet. Nothing grates more than having to be a cap-in-hand mendicant relying on other’s generosity. This is not to say that our money is not genuinely appreciated, often with a cargo cult-like enthusiasm, or that an average islander doesn’t dream of life in Australia; but the elites tend to be more ambiguous – well aware of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and very touchy about the white man’s highhandedness and preachiness.
The issue of climate change only adds piquancy to the mix. I don’t doubt that Tong and other Pacific leaders past and present genuinely believe in catastrophic man-made climate change the same way that hundreds of millions of people around the world believe in all the most extreme predictions of environmental Armageddon: islands being swallowed by the rising sea levels, higher temperatures killing fisheries and ecosystems, millions of climate refugees floating around in search of new homes. The low-lying islands and atolls with already precarious economies clearly are the most vulnerable to any environmental shocks. The fact that so far there is little evidence of any of the feared changes doesn’t seem to affect the vehemency of the alarmist claims by the said leaders, echoed by the Western activists and the media. For example, Tong’s own Kiribati is not actually sinking – quite the opposite.
But the fact that the belief is sincere does not mean that it won’t be ruthlessly manipulated for all it’s worth. Australia does not have a white colonial guilt that can be exploited to tag at the purse strings, as has been done for decades by developing countries in other parts of the world. But climate change is the next best thing – our belching smoke stacks and car exhausts are drowning the paradise; the least we can do is put another few hundred million dollars on the table to help the island nations deal with the consequences of our carbon vandalism. Like the medieval Church indulgences, the money buys our way out of perdition. Unlike boring health and education aid, it also makes for a far sexier claim on the Western generosity because of its existential urgency. Climate change is the AIDS epidemic of the 2010s: a certain wallet opener that can overcome any compassion fatigue (and therefore everything can and will be spun to fit under the umbrella narrative).
Price might have been blunt and undiplomatic. It hurts because it’s true.