Weathering Shame

On shame, and last month's Pacific Island Forum.

Original photo by Mick Tsikas (AAP)

I turn 21 soon and I’m terrified. Since birth, my family has reminded me that all my little kernels of embarrassment will surely appear in my father’s PowerPoint-guided 21st speech. Now, crippled by an adolescence of CamWow selfies and one horribly misguided instance of fake tanning only my face, I have quite a visceral repulsion to the idea of ‘21’.

Perhaps I should be less anxious. Afterall, public embarrassment is a defining feature of Australian politics. There was the time Turnbull was compelled to introduce a ‘bonk ban’, the time Gillard fell on her face in India, and that time Abbott ate the onion. Recently, Australia has been embarrassed again, but this wasn’t as quick and painless as the aforementioned. This was more than just a gaffe. 

Last month, Australia attended the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and the amount of embarrassing blows was about as exhilarating as it was stifling. There were tears, broken friendships and pale pink polos. Let’s break it down.

The members of the PIF meet annually to enhance cooperation between states and improve the wellbeing of Pacific citizens. This usually involves negotiating the contents of the ‘communique’, a document used to outline the concerns of the region and formalise members’ commitments to future steps. As per the trend of the past few years, climate change and emissions reductions were hot on the agenda. Seeing as our Prime Minister once held up a lump of coal in parliament and told us not to be scared, we knew this was going to be a testing time.

Morrison was quick to call the PIF a ‘family gathering’. I must agree it had all the makings of a good family gathering: an island paradise, matching shirts and (initially) smiling faces. But, it did not take long for this family gathering to breakdown. This was one of those occasions where the collapse was less due to Aunt Judy guzzling one too many Chardonnays, and more because estranged brother Scott got a bit too flashy with his dollars and told all his cousins to ‘get a real problem’.

Infact, most family members freely admitted that Ol’ ScoMo ruffled a few feathers with his insistence to water down the language of the communique, even convincing the family to scratch out the word ‘coal’ from the document. Heated words were had with Fijian Prime Minister literally disowning Morrison as a “good friend”, and the Tongan Prime Minister was reduced to tears over Australia’s inactive response to the smaller islands’ pleas for action. Worst of all, ScoMo was unphased by these emotional indictments, heralding the summit as a success on his Facebook page and proudly spruiking our generous 500 million dollar aid package as a great solution to issues of the region.

This all sounds pretty cringey, but it gets even worse when you consider where we were when Australia threw money at the rising seas. This year’s PIF was held in Tuvalu, one of the smallest, least-visited nations on earth. 

At only 4.5 meters above sea-level, Tuvalu is one of four nations most vulnerable to rising seas, and climate change is the number one cause of its continued rise. Tuvalu has already suffered a fair share of climate shocks, experiencing more frequent king tides, droughts, food shortages and major disruptions to its fishing industry.

Coal kills small island nations like Tuvalu and Australia’s removal of the ‘c’ word from the communique truly embodies an unwillingness to meaningfully change. According to the Climate Action Tracker, Australia’s current emissions reductions targets aren’t enough to keep global warming below 1.5°C. If all government targets were in this range, the world would warm by 3°C. At 3°C warming, Tuvalu will likely become uninhabitable, and there is no international precedent or law to prevent Tuvalu, its statehood, international status, and national identity, from disappearing completely. 

Australia’s emissions are eight times the total emissions of the Pacific region and with our trusty reliance on Kyoto loopholes, it doesn’t look like they’ll be reduced any time soon. So, say the worst-case scenario eventuates, the seas rise and Tuvalu becomes unlivable (which has already forced migration from its outer islands) – ‘Does anyone have a plan for that?’ you ask. Yes, Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack calmly said that the Pacific Island will “continue to survive because many of their workers [are welcome to] come here to pick our fruit.” Oh, Uncle Michael why do you always embarrass us like this?

Australia’s conduct at the PIF was truly shameful. Sure, we’ve all been there — unnervingly asserted our own needs before others, underestimated someone’s real sense of existentialism, been so badly behaved it puts some friendships on the line. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from my chronicle of embarrassments it’s that there is a time to pull your socks up and do better. And that time is now.