The view from Billinudgel

Tropic blunder
Bill Shorten’s Pacific jaunt exposed the limits of Labor’s climate ambition

We know that Bill Shorten had a stint in the Pacific islands. We could hardly have avoided the TV footage of him wearing, apparently, a grass tiara while stumbling around in what he fondly imagined was an idiosyncratic version of a traditional local dance.

But without that disturbing image, we might have missed the occasion altogether. True, there were a couple of other sightings: he was glimpsed jogging determinedly beside the grim-faced Richard Marles, and a third traveler, Tanya Plibersek, reported her surprise and alarm that the hotel had water views from both directions. But apart from that we would have to ask whether Shorten’s trip was really necessary.

The ostensible excuse was that he was drawing attention to the government’s inadequate response to the threat of climate change; by highlighting the plight of some of the low-lying islands in the region he would show that Labor had a more decisive and response to their predicament than the recidivist prime minister and his party room of sceptics and deniers. The media mogul Harold Mitchell, a true believer, offered him and his party a private plane to make the point and they set off, with some fanfare, for the tropics.

But it must be said that their reception was less than ebullient. Shorten said bravely that he thought that the islanders had been heartened by his visit and by Labor’s focus on renewable energy, and certainly the reception he received in Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands was polite enough. There were some low-key welcoming celebrations and no one told them to go back where they came from.

But that was about the extent of the excitement. The Kiribati president Anote Tong suggested that Shorten might care to offer something more concrete than platitudes by making a commitment to no more new coal mines in Australia; he was firmly rebuffed. Coal, it appears, has a long and bipartisan future in Australia, and the exports will continue and expand as long as the demand can be maintained.

And Shorten also failed to set deadlines, targets or even broad aspirations to reduce carbon emissions beyond the desultory program proposed by Malcolm Turnbull. The Opposition leader’s policy footwork was no more agile than his choreography.  

But at least he did not make bad jokes; he did not follow up the overheard sally of Peter Dutton, who explained his reference to “Cape York time” by elaborating: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping about your door.” Unsurprisingly, Anote Tong said that Dutton was vulgar and arrogant.

And since then the new Pacific Island Minister, Steve Ciobo, has suggested that the answer to the rising sea levels that could engulf the islands was to practise “resilience” – perhaps the residents could build liferafts, or, failing that, find a way to breathe under water. No one has offered the solution of relocating them to Australia – or even to Nauru.

It seems that Turnbull will just keep on stopping the boats, and Shorten will just keep on dancing. And the islanders will have to sink or swim.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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