WELLINGTON • Influential Pacific island leaders have called for Australia to be ousted from the region's main regional grouping, criticising Canberra's "neo-colonial" attitudes and refusal to take urgent action on climate change.
It comes after Australia was accused of muzzling leaders who wanted to use last week's Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu to issue a global call for action on climate change ahead of United Nations-sponsored talks in New York next month. Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack then added further insult when he dismissed the islanders' concerns and said they could "come here and pick our fruit" to survive.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga labelled Mr McCormack's comments as "abusive and offensive", challenging Australia's right to a place in the 18-member forum. "The spirit of the Pacific way is not understood by these guys, I don't think they understand anything about (it)," he told Radio New Zealand (RNZ). "And if that's the case, what is the point of these guys remaining in the Pacific Island leaders' forum? I don't see any merit in that."
Mr Sopoaga's views echoed those of Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who over last weekend described his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison as "very insulting" and said China offered a more welcoming brand of diplomacy.
Australia has a complex relationship with its Pacific island neighbours, who receive about A$1.4 billion (S$1.3 billion) a year in aid from Canberra.
Despite the generous handouts, Pacific islanders often bristle at Australian attitudes to a region that officials in Canberra refer to as "our backyard".
Mr Sopoaga said the forum row on climate change reminded him of regional meetings decades ago, when "colonial masters" set the agenda. "We are still seeing reflections and manifestations of this neo-colonialist approach to what the leaders are talking about," he told RNZ.
Canberra, alarmed at Beijing's diplomatic inroads into the region, last year launched a charm offensive labelled "the Pacific Step-up", aimed at bringing the islands closer and forestalling any chance of a Chinese military base in the region. But the divisions over climate change exposed at the summit have proved deeper than expected, driving a wedge between Australia and the islands.
Pacific leaders view global warming as an existential threat to low-lying nations requiring immediate action, including a rapid transition away from coal, to save their homes.
Mr Morrison concedes climate change is real but insists it can be managed in a way that does not hurt the economy, including the lucrative coal industry.
Former Kiribati president Anote Tong, a long-time climate campaigner, said China now appeared to be a better partner in the Pacific because Australia's priority appeared to be preserving its coal industry, not helping to stop global warming.
"It's really about the lesser of two evils, I guess, and at the moment Australia is coming up as the worse of the two evils," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.