HOST: The Prime Minister has stressed he has one overriding duty to look after Australia’s economy and he says it is not up to us to echo what smaller island states necessarily say. Isn’t that a fair enough position to take?
CONROY: Well, the impact, the effect of Mr Morrison’s position has been to undermine our standing in the Pacific. By setting Australia against the other 17 nations in the Pacific Islands Forum, he has undermined the Pacific Step Up, which is his signature diplomatic approach and that obviously weakens our position in a critical region. So that is against our national interest.
HOST: But it is a balancing act, isn’t it, these forums. That’s what is becoming increasingly obvious. So he does have domestic political considerations to consider.
CONROY: There are domestic political and economic considerations but there was a way through. The small Pacific islands, and essentially all Pacific islands in fact, have had four main demands of Australia. One is to lift our climate emission reduction ambition, because at the moment it is inconsistent with Paris. Secondly, put in place policies to actually reduce our emissions because they are increasing at the moment. Thirdly, don’t use dodgy accounting tricks like the Kyoto carry-over units to achieve that emissions reduction target. And fourthly commit to phasing out coal-fired power and no new coal mines. If Mr Morrison had committed to the first three, which are in Australia’s national interest, he could have negotiated directly to avoid point four. But he disagreed on all four points, which meant that Australia is standing out from the rest of the Pacific.
HOST: The Minister who holds your portfolio, Alex Hawke, was in Tuvalu this week and he said signing a communique that mentioned phasing out coal was a red line issue for Australia. Now, in a sense, Labor is drawn into this too because coal is a red line issue. It’s vitally important for our economy particularly in your electorate of Shortland in Newcastle which is at the heart of the Hunter coal region.
CONROY: It is at the heart of the Hunter coal region, but the most important point is that we are legally responsible for emissions released within Australia. That’s the UN accounting method for climate change policies. And we could have got through these negotiations and reached a compromise that would have been acceptable if we had committed to emissions reduction targets that were consistent with the Paris Treaty. There was a way through this process and this Government has welched on it. And that was the way through. Lifting our ambition, not using dodgy accounting methods…
HOST: Without actually mentioning the coal, you are saying?
CONROY: Absolutely. Because in the end we would have had the credibility and standing to go to our Pacific neighbours and say, ‘I know you are very focused on no new coal mines, but the actual UN FCCC process, as the architecture, says nations are responsible for the emissions that are released in their own country, and by the way we are lifting our ambition, we’re lifting it to minus 45 per cent by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. We will achieve this; these are our policies to do it’. And that would have given us the credibility and standing to say to our Pacific neighbours ‘we will provide international momentum by doing that’ and that’s the way you look at phasing our fossil fuels over time.
HOST: And because you weren’t in the room, we don’t know whether they did try that and it didn’t work. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu said, he sounded as if he wanted more than that, meant lowering its emissions as well as not opening any new coal mines. Which puts him at odds does it not with Labor’s policies as well as the Government’s?
CONROY: Well, I can assure you that the Australian Government definitely did not do that. This Government has tried to remove any reference to climate change in every communique in diplomatic arenas. This is a Government that is sticking by a woefully inadequate target of minus 26 per cent; they don’t even have the policies to achieve that.
HOST: They wanted a reference to climate change ‘reality’ didn’t they, not ‘crisis’, they didn’t want to dodge it altogether.
CONROY: Yes, and again that is a way of avoiding the issue. We do face a climate crisis. By talking about climate reality they are trying to mute the language, mute the emphasis, despite the fact that we signed up to the Boe Declaration at last year’s PIF, that said that climate change is the number one existential threat to the entire Pacific. So, Australia’s position has been inconsistent, but we’re seen as a bad actor in this area. The only way through would have been to agree to an internationally responsible target and actually have policies that are designed to achieve that.
HOST: Now, I just want to mention again as I did earlier in the program that Winston Peters from New Zealand did actually accuse the Pacific Island leaders of some hypocrisy because he said, ‘well are they behaving as harshly towards China and asking them about their emissions and how they feel about, their attitude to climate change?’ Did you have some sympathy with him?
CONROY: I had sympathy with his broader point which is that countries are responsible for the emissions that are released in their internal economy, their domestic economy. That is essentially the point he was making regarding China and Australia. And I think that is absolutely right. But I understand the frustration from our Pacific neighbours and the need to push on all these angles and we are playing into that frustration by being seen as bad actors and not actually taking concrete action on climate change domestically, which is the one thing that we are both morally and legally responsible for and quite frankly the one thing that is under the control of this Government.
HOST: Now onto some other matters. Labor’s election campaign and policies are currently being review by former premier Jay Weatherill and former federal minister Craig Emerson. That review is likely to be completed by October. Given the drubbing in Queensland, do you think it is politically possible for the party to take the kinds of positions in a way that Pacific nations want to see? There is a certain degree of being hemmed in, isn’t there?
CONROY: I think Australians, including Queenslanders, want strong action on climate change. And if you look at the swings towards us in other seats, I think Australians want action on climate change. What played out in Queensland and to a lesser extent in my region is somehow they thought that the Labor Party was ashamed of the coal industry – that we thought that were akin to, not doing legitimate jobs. I’m always very careful to say that I respect the fact that the wealth of regions like mine is built on coal, I respect the sacrifices and the risks that coal miners make every day and I welcome and applaud those jobs. And then I go onto say that unfortunately the global market for thermal coal peaked in 2012 – it has declined every year since. Our exports have increased in that period as people switch off less efficient coal for Australian coal. But at some stage there will be a structural decline in the coal industry. So we need to be honest with workers and industry about what is occurring in the decades to come. But we have got to acknowledge the sacrifice they have made and the huge contribution they have made to the economy now, and we didn’t get that balance right unfortunately.
HOST: The rise of China is one of the backdrops to the Prime Minister’s so called Pacific Step Up, as you know. What’s your judgement? Do you see China – and after all the cheap loans, that was the point about Winston Peters – that the Pacific leaders were asking for cheap loans from China and weren’t asking about their coal-fired economy. Should we see China as a direct competitor for influence in the Pacific or do you think that is the wrong way to look at the situation?
CONROY: China, as a very significant global power, is naturally looking at where it can increase its influence. That is an understandable motive from China. They are, to some extent, filling a vacuum that’s caused by Australia pulling back from the Pacific from 2013 onwards. And this Government has recognised this through the Pacific Step Up. So China is filling a vacuum that we’ve created and they will continue to fill the vacuum as long as we take action to stop meaningful progress on climate change. That is the key point there. The other parts of the Pacific Step Up are really important, but some of them are failing or not going as fast as they need to, like the Pacific Labour Scheme. And while that continues, and while the climate change impasse continues, nations like China will become more and more attractive as the partner of choice for the Pacific.
HOST: Even though we did turn up with about $500 million, I think, we were offering.
CONROY: First off, that $500 million wasn’t new money – it was existing aid redirected. And secondly it doesn’t matter how many solar panels you put on people’s rooves if the nation is going to be under water. And that is the existential threat these nations face. Tuvalu for example, the highest point of land is one-and-a-half metres above sea level. They need action on climate change now. $500 million of redirected funding doesn’t cut it and the language that was used in response was extraordinarily direct from diplomats.
You can listen to the interview here