MUNGO MACCALLUM: Patriarch Scott Morrison tells Pacific Islanders about coal

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Prime Minister Scott Morrison pretends we have no responsibility for coal because we ship it overseas — this is the mendacity that sustains climate denialists.

THE GREAT WHITE FATHER has arrived at the far-flung atolls of the Pacific. And, like the missionaries before him, Scott Morrison is delivering the bringing of the light — a gospel of hope and salvation.

Well, up to a point. Boiled down, his message is that if they are worried about the rising waters, they should sandbag the foreshores and move to higher ground, if there is any, because he is not going to do anything substantial to help.

He will, of course, offer money, which his host at the Pacific Islands Forum, Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, said was not really the point:

“No matter how much money you put on the table it does not give you the excuse not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coal mines. That is the thing we want to see.”

Morison brushed that aside — it was only confirmation that the Islanders are too primitive to appreciate the beauty of Western capitalism, the wonder of a real economy. If he returns he may try traditional gifts for the residents; perhaps a cargo-load of beads, mirrors and bolts of brightly coloured cloth.

But in any case, he was not there just to trade, but to evangelise and his first commandment was a simple one: “Thou shalt have no other gods before coal.”

This was the red line — and a red line beats a waterline every time.

The epistle had already been delivered by Alex Hawke, the quaintly titled Minister for the Pacific — a designation some might find a touch colonial. But Hawke was, as always, at pains to emphasise the spin.

First, Australia was doing its bit on climate change – we would meet our Paris commitments in a canter. Actually, with Australia’s emissions continuing to rise we almost certainly won’t, even with the dodgy carry-over credits from Tokyo which were never envisaged in Paris and have been rejected by most other advanced nations.

But even if we did meet our 28 per cent, the science has moved on. It is now clear that this will not be enough, the targets need to be ramped up as a matter of urgency. "No way", says Hawke — and in any case, Australia’s emissions are a very small contribution to what is now increasingly acknowledged to be a climate crisis.

Well, this depends on how you measure it — in per capita terms we are among the biggest, if not at the top. But this is not the real argument. Sopoaga also demanded that we stop opening coal mines, to which Hawke replied that we were only planning to open two more (at the moment) and right now Australia runs just 20 of the 2,459 operating mines around the world.

True, but again beside the point. Australia is the biggest exporter of coal in the world — our gold medal winner. And even if you add in the other fossil fuels – oil and gas – we would still be on the podium along with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

If Australia cut back, supply and demand would not only force the international price to rise, but the urgency of switching to other sources would make replacements – mainly renewables –far more attractive. Australia is not an innocent bystander at the mercy of the polluting giants: we are – or rather we should be – a major player, even a game-breaker.

Morrison likes to insist that emissions have no nationality. But Australian coal does, which is why he loves the export earnings of the sacred rock. Pretending that we have no responsibility for it just because we can ship it overseas in the way we used to get rid of our garbage is just a lie. And for years it has been part of the mendacity that sustains the climate denialists in the worship of their carboniferous deity.

Hypocrisy? Of course, so let’s shift the blame. The sinking Islanders are the real hypocrites because they accept largesse from the heathen Chinese, indefatigable miners and polluters. And they do, partly because they have little choice. But do Hawke and Morrison really want to draw an equivalence? They attack China’s aid as exploitation, done with a sinister imperialist purpose, while for Australia it is all altruism.

We are, declares Morrison, waxing sentimental, family. We certainly like to think of ourselves that way, but there is a proviso: Morrison has to be the pater familias, the patriarch, and father knows best. The children have to be taught to behave — take what they are given and be bloody grateful, be seen and not heard and, preferably, not even be seen too much. The family gathering included shouting and tears but Morrison assured us, always respectfully. And Big Daddy had his way.

Morrison goes on about the vast amount of aid Australia provides, especially in contrast to New Zealand. But it is not too smart to dwell on the figures. The Australian bid – including a repackaged $500 million already promised that Morrison has thrown in –still only brings the current offering up to $800 million. The Kiwis, with a far smaller economy, are stumping up $500 million. And as we all know, the main reason Australia is coming to the party is to try and push back China — not too much altruism there.

Morrison is quite right to boast of Australia’s long-standing engagement in the Pacific. It has come a long way since the days of the blackbirders — the slavers who kidnapped Islanders to work on the Queensland cane fields. He is particularly keen to mention education. Given the circumstances, he might like to throw in some intensive swimming lessons.

And now he is talking about disaster relief, by which he presumably means storm and tempest, often because of climate change. But the real disaster will be when the low-lying islands do not just lose the odd coastal village but become effectively inhabitable.

This will be Australia’s moment of truth: what is to happen to the people? Where will they go? The likelihood is that many will become boat people, asylum seekers and while the lucky ones may end up on the more hospitable shores of New Zealand, a lot will head for Australia. And if the present regime, or anything like it, is in power, they will not be welcome.

It would be ironic indeed if they were confined in offshore detention — the ultimate Pacific solution.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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