The opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, has conceded that the Coalition must listen “carefully to Pacific island nations” as part of what needs to be a “rock solid” bipartisan commitment to climate funding for the region.
Birmingham is among a bipartisan delegation led by the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, that will depart Australia on Monday on a visit to three Pacific island countries.
Despite torrid debates during this year’s election campaign over policies towards China and its security deal with Solomon Islands, Birmingham said he recognised Australia was “stronger when we can speak with one voice”.
Birmingham said he hoped the visit to Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau “sends a clear signal that both sides of politics in Australia value and respect the relationship” with Pacific countries.
Under Scott Morrison’s government, Australia stepped away from the UN’s Green Climate Fund – preferring to act bilaterally – and was repeatedly criticised by the Pacific for not setting a much deeper 2030 emissions reduction target.
Asked whether the Coalition had to work to restore Pacific countries’ trust on the climate crisis, Birmingham said Australia must “be able to demonstrate to Pacific island nations that we are committed to being a responsible global player”.
“We have to maintain a position of rock solid commitment to ensure that climate assistance continues to flow into the Pacific now and into the future,” he said.
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The Coalition has sought to attack Anthony Albanese’s government over the deal at the Cop27 UN climate summit in Egypt. The summit supported the concept of a global fund for “loss and damage”, providing financial assistance to developing countries stricken by climate disaster.
The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, opened the first question time after the Cop27 summit asking why “the government has just signed up to funding a $2tn loss and damage climate fund” and adding: “Doesn’t charity begin at home?”
Birmingham gave a more nuanced position when asked whether it would be wrong for the Coalition to be too dismissive of loss and damage, given the Pacific’s longstanding support for such a fund.
“Well, we should be listening carefully to Pacific island nations, but making sure that they get the support that they need in all of its forms,” Birmingham said.
“I think we need to be very careful that in debates about multilateral funds, the Pacific don’t get potentially lost in bureaucratic processes, but Australia has a clear role to play and we cannot step away from that when it comes to support to those Pacific island nations.”
Albanese has previously rounded on Dutton over his criticism of the loss and damage fund. The prime minister told parliament Dutton had once stood under a microphone “making jokes about Pacific islands drowning”.
The UN’s assistant secretary general, Kanni Wignaraja, said during a visit to Australia last week that loss and damage was “a very important step and particularly for the Pacific”.
She said the Pacific had been pushing for such a measure “for a long while” and the climate crisis required the world to be “in it together”.
“It is an existential crisis – and it’s a crisis that really knows and respects no borders,” said Wignaraja, who is also Asia Pacific Regional Director of the UN Development Programme.
“I will absolutely not comment on domestic politics here, but in general, for the UN the statement of support that this is a global issue and needs global solidarity and a pact between all countries is fundamental.”
Wignaraja acknowledged there was still a long way to go to work out the mechanics of the fund. Developed countries had promised in previous climate summits to mobilise $100bn a year in climate finance “and this has not yet been met”.
Wong and Birmingham are travelling together with the minister for international development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, and his opposition counterpart, Michael McCormack.
It is the first such bipartisan visit to Pacific island countries since 2019, before the pandemic.
Wong said she was “pleased we are delivering on the Albanese government’s promise to reinstate bipartisan parliamentary delegation visits, demonstrating Australia’s enduring commitment to strengthening our Pacific partnerships and addressing regional challenges”.
Meetings with the leaders of Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau will focus on each county’s “development objectives, the existential threat of climate change, and key regional security issues”, according to a joint statement issued by the four ministers and shadow ministers.