Thursday 10th September 2015 - 9:44 am

These are not-so-peaceful times in the Pacific

by Alan Thornhill

Analysis

Tony Abbott can’t expect a heroes’ welcome in Port Moresby today, like that John Howard received in Honiara a few years ago.

Mr Howard, who was then Prime Minister, had just launched the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) which was to restore peace there, after years of low level civil war.

His reward, from the local people, was a greeting so rapturous that Mr Howard was forced to confess, on his return, that he was glad it did not happen everywhere he went.

He admitted that he would not have been able to restrain his ego, if it did.

Mr Abbott is in no such danger in Papua New Guinea, where he is attending a Pacific Islands Forum meeting.

Indeed, his policies on climate change, have already brought about a fundamental reassessment of Australia’s once high standing throughout Melanesia.

So much so, in fact, that the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has taken to calling the Abbott Government the “bad brother” of the Pacific.

And there has even been talk of a walkout, by Pacific Island nations, from this year’s Forum meeting, over the issue.

What’s behind all this?

Fear.

People in the Solomons,for example, know that their low lying island homes could be flooded, if the Antarctic ice shelf melts, as a result of global warming.

Scientists admit that ambient temperatures, around the world, may not have risen quite as much yet – as their research had led them to expect.

But they also say there are indications that some of the extra heat – generated by climate change – is being absorbed by the sea.

That does not provide a lot of comfort to some one who lives with his family on, say, San Cristobal, or one of the other 800 or so islands in the Solomons.

And – although education levels throughout Melanesia are not high – at least by Western standards – awareness of this danger is.

Indeed, as one who has recently returned, from a two year assignment in the Solomons, your author can assure readers that the people of that young nation carry a low-simmering anger, that is readily directed towards anyone who might be called a climate change sceptic.

And Mr Abbott, who once dismissed the entire issue as “absolute crap” is still seen in that way, in the Pacific.

The government’s Labor opponents, at home, say little progress has been made, over recent months, in talks designed to secure a rapprochement on this issue.

Indeed Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, says it is understood negotiations between the Abbott Government and other members of the 16 nation forum have served only to anger some of the Pacific nations.

And, she says, they are now demanding Mr Abbott make meaningful concessions at the forum in Papua New Guinea.

In a joint statement with her colleague, Matt Thistlewaite, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration, Ms Plibersek also said Mr Abbott has managed to threaten the Forum’s very existence, through his intransigence on climate change.

Critics are urging Mr Abbott to remember that Australia, too, has a big stake in this issue.

For if the worst does, indeed, happen – and sea levels in the area do rise catastrophically – it could well be facing another refugee crisis.

Just when current experience suggests that one is enough.


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Alan Thornhill

Alan Thornhill is a parliamentary press gallery journalist.
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