When Scott Morrison thanked governments of the world for their assistance with Australia’s bushfire crisis, he particularly singled out “the loving response from our Pacific family”.
Across the Pacific region – a collection of developing and least developed nations that are themselves almost uniquely at risk from climate-induced catastrophes – the response to the Australian bushfires has been immediate and generous, but it also reveals something of the problematic fraternity that Australia has with the rest of the region.
Governments from all over the Pacific have offered support. A hundred Papua New Guinean defence personnel, mostly engineers, will fly to Australia to help with firefighting efforts, and Fijian defence personnel will also be coming to assist. Vanuatu’s government has pledged $250,000. A PNG politician urged people to donate to relief efforts, pledging 50,000 kina (A$20,000) himself.
And then there are the small gestures: a coffee shop in Fiji donated all of its sales on Monday – F$3,000 (A$2,000) – to bushfire relief; a group of Red Cross volunteers in Vanuatu walked down the street collecting donations, carrying a sign reading: “Give hope to Australian bush fire survivors”.
Giro Imbu, 35, organised a similar donation drive in Lae, Papua New Guinea’s second-largest city, after seeing images of the bushfires on television. Imbu led a group of young people who walked through the city’s settlements on Thursday and Friday collecting donations. On their first day they received 1,000 kina.
“We see the environment was really devastated, we see the plants being destroyed, we see a lot of the countrymen losing their lives in the fire,” Imbu said. “We’re not very educated, but it has given us a drive … we want to help.”
To put all of this in context, in 2017 Vanuatu’s GDP per capita was just under US$3,000, Papua New Guinea’s was about US$2,500, Australia’s was close to US$55,000. The minimum wage in PNG is 3.50 kina (A$1.50) an hour.
As Morrison noted at his press conference – speaking about Vanuatu’s pledge of $250,000 – “it might not sound like a lot in terms of the tremendous assistance provided by many other countries, but from them, that was a gift from the heart”.
The heartfelt response of Pacific nations to Australia during this time is in part a reciprocation of the assistance Pacific countries receive from Australia when crises befall them. As James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, noted in his statement about the fires: “Australia is the closest friend of PNG and is always the first in PNG in our times of adversities.”
After Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu in 2015, Australia committed $50m in support for early and long-term recovery. After Cyclone Winston caused damage in Fiji amounting to about 30% of its GDP in 2016, Australia stepped in with $35m for recovery efforts.
Morrison also reminded the world of Australia’s generosity as he was thanking Pacific countries for theirs, saying: “[Pacific leaders] know how Australia has been faithful to them in their hours of need, and they just in their own way are trying to extend that in the best way they possibly can.”
But Australia’s generosity also puts Pacific countries in a tight spot. Pacific leaders have to walk a difficult line: keeping Australia and its financial support on side, particularly as they face the prospect of increased climate-related natural disasters in their countries, while wanting to challenge Australia on its climate policies.
A Pacific climate change coordinator once told me that he saw Australia’s relationship with the rest of the region on the issue of the climate crisis as akin to an abusive marriage.
On the one hand, he said, Australia provided aid to the region to deal with the effects of global heating, but then at international climate summits, Australia actively undermined global attempts – often spearheaded by Pacific leaders – to halt the climate crisis. “It’s like you’re in a relationship and you get abused by your spouse but at the same time they feed you and clothe you and things like that.”
Pacific leaders are among the most outspoken and effective climate leaders the world has. We know they are angry at Australia’s refusal to transition away from coal, as well as Australia’s use of carryover credits to meet Paris targets. We know, in the words of the former prime minister of Tuvalu, , Enele Sopoaga, that they see Australia as trying to save its economy, while they are working to save their people.
We know that they knowAustralia is not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis – the same climate crisis that is seeing their islands suffer rising sea levels, increasingly frequent devastating cyclones, salinity of the water table, erosion of their islands; that same climate crisis that threatens to make Australia’s current devastating fire season the norm for our future.
And yet, still, they are there to offer us help.
When asked whether he thought it was odd for people in a much poorer country like Papua New Guinea to be raising money for people in a wealthier one, Imbu, who organised the Lae fundraiser, said: “We live in an environment where the richest are getting richer and the poorest getting poorer, but as human beings we have this hardware, we try to help.”
Pacific nations deserve all the thanks Morrison has given them, but to survive, they need much more from him.