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Time for less patronising Pacific talk and more climate action: Samoan Deputy PM

In a frank speech in Melbourne, one of the Pacific’s most senior female leaders reflects on shifting diplomacy, old colonial attitudes and the urgent concerns of the crisis lapping at her country’s shores. Jack Banister reports.

Time for less patronising Pacific talk and more climate action: Samoan Deputy PM

"We applaud the (zero carbon target) in New Zealand because it aligns with what Pacific island states have been working and activating and advocating for. Australia hasn’t made that commitment": the Honourable Fiame Mata'afa, Deputy Prime Minister, Samoa. Photo: La Trobe University

Words by Jack Banister

Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, has urged Australia and her own country to “become adults” in their relations, which she said have been marred by “petulance” in the past.

“I think we need to have a more mature relationship. Because quite frankly, it’s been one of patronage, in a way,” said Ms Mata’afa, delivering a keynote address in Melbourne on Wednesday at a development conference hosted by La Trobe University.

She illustrated her concerns in the context of increasing diplomatic competition between China and Australia within the Pacific region. Ms Mata’afa, who is the daughter of Samoa’s first prime minister and has served as the country’s Deputy Prime Minister since 2016, said that “people keep on telling us, including Australia and New Zealand, that we’re not old enough, we’re not capable enough, to run our own relationships with China.

Speaking in Melbourne, the Honourable Fiame Mata’afa, Deputy Prime Minister, Samoa. Photo: La Trobe University

Speaking in Melbourne, the Honourable Fiame Mata’afa, Deputy Prime Minister, Samoa. Photo: La Trobe University

“When it comes to us, they say, ‘you really need to be, you should remember that we are your older brothers, or sisters, here in the Pacific, and you have to be careful of those Chinese people’ ”.

With her nation at the front line of impacts from climate change, including sea level rise and extreme weather events, Ms Mata’afa also emphasised what she described as the pressing need for better collective action on climate change. She praised New Zealand’s recent commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050, and called upon Australia to follow suit.

“We applaud the change in policy in New Zealand because it aligns with what Pacific island states have been working and activating and advocating for.

“Australia hasn’t made that commitment. We respect Australia’s sovereignty, but we would hope not only in terms of regional relationships, but also global responsibility, that it will make that shift as well.”

Samoans were at risk of losing their land, she said, “and when they lose their land, they lose their place of belonging”.

Her comments come at a time when the Pacific looms large in Australian diplomacy and international geopolitics. Australia has been pursuing a diplomatic program of “stepping-up” in the Pacific since late 2017, ramping up the message late last year with Prime Minister Scott Morrison promising regional leaders “new chapter in relations with our Pacific family”. His first visit after his government’s surprise re-election in May was to Solomon Islands.

Between 2006 and 2016, China gave more than $US230 million in aid to Samoa, according to data from the Lowy Institute for International Policy. China’s expanding profile in aid, development and loans around the Pacific has ignited discussion and speculation about the superpower’s agenda in the region, although a recent analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that China’s soft-power influence in the region is limited and overstated.

Ms Mata’afa argued that Australia and New Zealand should bring to their dealings with Pacific nations the sort of “collective psyche” that was so vital to the function of Samoan society and communities throughout the region.

“The Pacific island nations are working on that narrative, where they’re now coming to the whole concept of the ‘Blue Pacific’. We actually have to ensure that we expand that narrative to take in New Zealand and Australia.

“We cannot continue on the way that we have been going where we have the Pacific islands here, and New Zealand and Australia there.”

In August 2018, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele called climate change the “single greatest threat to the livelihood, security and well-being peoples of the Pacific”, and suggested that world leaders still denying the existence of climate change ought to be taken to mental hospitals.

The Australian Government has recognised the threat climate change poses to Samoa, which was described in a recent Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade report as being “highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change”, because 80% of the country’s residents lived on or within a kilometre of the coast.

The report cites floods, tropical cyclones, and storm surges as key risks, while noting that all key Samoan sectors are susceptible to climate change impacts. In 2016, Australia pledged $300 million over four years to Pacific nations as part of a climate change support package.

But at the Pacific Forum in September 2018, the Australian government came under fire from Pacific leaders after claims that it tried to dilute the strength of the summit’s climate change resolution, and over its continued ambivalence towards lower emissions. Australia’s current emissions reduction target – 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 – falls in line with its 2015 commitments under the Paris Agreement. Those commitments are due to be revised next year.

Ms Mata’afa said that although the impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly, the issue still requires a global response.

“It’s not just a Pacific issue, or an issue for a particular level of society – for the poor or the rich, the black or the white. It’s an issue for all of us because it’s essentially about survival – our survival, and the survival of our planet.”

She highlighted the vital importance of multilateral talks, like the Paris Agreements, because of the limited capacity of small countries like Samoa to “influence, impact, persuade or bully anyone”.

Ms Mata’afa expressed her concern and shock that campaigns to save endangered animals gain more traction than a campaign to save humanity.

“People spend so much money on saving, you know, the elephants, the whales, the tigers, and I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking, who’s going to save the humans?”

“What kind of leadership do we need to begin to pull us back from the big black hole we’re going to fall into if we’re not making decisions?”

The Honourable Fiame Mata’afa, Deputy Prime Minister, Samoa, was keynote speaker at the Research for Development Impact (RDI) and La Trobe University 2019 conference in Melbourne this week.

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