Labor has accused Scott Morrison of trashing Australia’s standing in the Pacific and alienating its friends at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.
Labor’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said Morrison’s “arrogance” was to blame for tension at the summit. On Saturday, the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama told Guardian Australia that Morrison’s approach during the leaders’ retreat on Thursday was “very insulting and condescending” and would push nations closer to China.
Bainimarama described the leaders’ retreat, which lasted for nearly 12 hours and almost broke down over Australia’s “red lines” on the climate crisis, as “probably one of the most frustrating days I have ever had”.
“I gathered [Morrison] was here only to make sure that the Australian policies were upheld by the Pacific island nations,” Bainimarama said. “I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not.”
Wong said Morrison’s “arrogance has done great damage to our relationships and Australia’s standing in the region”.
“He’s undermined the Pacific step-up and alienated our friends,” she said.
“It’s no way to treat our neighbours. At a time when we need closer engagement with our region, Australia’s PM has diminished our influence.”
Wong’s comments followed controversial remarks from Australia’s deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, on Friday that Pacific island nations affected by the climate crisis would continue to survive “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit”.
“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive,” McCormack told a business function in Wagga Wagga on Friday.
On Saturday, Labor’s climate change spokesman, Mark Butler, said the long-standing relationship with Pacific countries had been damaged by Morrison’s heavy-handedness.
“It just adds insult to injury to have the deputy prime minister of the country then say if you lose your home through sea level rise you’ll be fine because you’ll be able to access some job opportunities in Australia,” Butler said.
Labor frontbencher Jason Clare also criticised McCormack’s remarks, saying they showed the Australian government had lost credibility on climate change.
“If you want to have real credibility in a debate with our neighbours … if you want to have the support of the region, then you need to demonstrate that you are taking climate change seriously,” he said.
The minister in assistance to the president of Marshall Islands, David Paul, wrote on Twitter: “As deputy leader of one country to another let me say this: the Pacific’s survival – and the Australian fruit industry – requires leadership on the greatest threat to our region and to the world. Unfortunately, $500m does not go very far when you are at risk of losing everything.”
Asked if Morrison’s approach might cause some Pacific leaders to look to China, which is locked in a battle for influence in the region with Australia, Bainimarama said: “After what we went through with Morrison, nothing can be worse than him.
“China never insults the Pacific. You say it as if there’s a competition between Australia and China. There’s no competition, except to say the Chinese don’t insult us.”
Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Regenvanu, told the Guardian that Australia had several “red lines” during negotiations that it refused to budge on, meaning Pacific leaders had to remove all references to coal, references to limiting warming to less than 1.5C and to setting out a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 from the forum communique and climate change statement that came out of the meeting.