Australian foreign minister heads to Pacific meeting with a nod to neighbours’ climate fears

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Picture: REUTERS/Faith Ninivaggi

CANBERRA,03 SEPTEMBER 2018 (SMH)- New Foreign Minister Marise Payne has acknowledged she will carry the baggage of “an extremely difficult week” over Australia’s approach to climate change when she faces Pacific island leaders worried about the threat to their countries posed by rising sea levels.

Senator Payne will head to Nauru on Monday for her first overseas meeting, the Pacific Islands Forum, at which she expects to finalise a major regional security agreement but is also likely to face questions from leaders in the neighbourhood about Australia’s commitment to climate action after the chaotic leadership change 10 days ago.

Canberra is looking to deepen its ties with Pacific nations amid concern about China’s strategic ambitions in what Australia has traditionally considered its backyard, with government ministers repeatedly saying Australia wants to be the “partner of choice” to smaller neighbours.

With some Pacific leaders voicing their concern about Australia’s commitment to climate action, Senator Payne acknowledged this was a key issue for low-lying island countries but stressed Australia’s history of practical action ought to assuage their worries.

“We have had, no denying, an extremely difficult week on these issues and on other things in Australian politics, but I think our practical record in the region and support for countries in the region is there for all to see,” she told Fairfax Media.

“I will definitely be talking about the fact that Australia absolutely recognises that Pacific island countries are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and to the impacts of natural disasters. That therefore means it is a top priority for the region and I absolutely acknowledge that.”

Australia has committed under the Paris climate pact to cut its emissions by 26 per cent by 2030 but does not now have a national strategy for hitting that target after a series of policy changes surrounding the leadership battle that brought Scott Morrison to the prime ministership.

Some Coalition MPs during the tumult of recent weeks were openly calling for Australia to abandon its Paris pledge.

On Sunday, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News that Morrison had made it “very clear that Australia will continue to honour our commitments” on climate change.

“We continually see in terms of that abatement target that is required to meet the 2030 commitments that gap is closing with each update,” he said. “And we will continue to work on the policy settings to make sure that that is achieved.”

Senator Payne said Australia had already spent at least two-thirds of the $300 million (US$215 million) it pledged to climate change and natural disaster resilience through the Pacific Island Forum in 2016.

It was also “mainstreaming” climate change and natural disaster resilience into its investments in the Pacific in “practical demonstrations to Australia’s engagement and commitment”.

Senator Payne also dismissed former Pacific minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ call for more aid to the region. Australia has cut its overall foreign aid budget but directed more to the neighbourhood so that a record $1.3 billion (US$934 million) will be spent this financial year in the Pacific.

“The former minister may have her own views, but I’m very confident that [aid] is targeted and that it is delivering in response to our engagement with our partners in the region,” Senator Payne said.

She said her top priority was signing the “Biketawa Plus” security agreement, which would have a “very contemporary focus on emerging threats” such as cybersecurity and transnational crime.

Because of lobbying from Pacific leaders, the draft of the agreement also states: “We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris agreement.”

Senator Payne also defended the fact that Morrison would not attend the Pacific forum as Australian leaders have previously done, arguing he had other immediate challenges in his first fortnight in the role.

And asked why the Pacific affairs portfolio had been downgraded from a ministerial to an assistant ministerial position, she said she would be “leading from the front” in making the Pacific a priority.

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