Interview on Radio National Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

Topics: Pacific Islands Forum; Climate Change; Green Climate Fund.
14 August 2019

Patricia Karvelas: Alex Hawke is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific and Assistant Defence Minister. He's been representing the Prime Minister at the forum since Monday, and I spoke to him a short time ago.

Alex Hawke: Good morning.

Patricia Karvelas: You've been in Tuvalu since Monday. What are Pacific Island nations telling you about the impact climate change is having on their countries?

Alex Hawke: Well here in Tuvalu, obviously, climate change is a real and present issue and leaders are telling us regularly that they want to see more action from the international community on the impacts of climate change on their nations. And there are many discussions about how to do that, but obviously Australia's at the forefront in the region of helping in climate adaptation, climate mitigation, projects that are climate resilient, and dealing with the actual challenges that Pacific Island countries are facing. So, we have another set of discussions about our communique coming up in the next few days and Prime Minister Morrison flies in today. But what we're hearing from Pacific leaders is they respect Australia's position on climate here in the region, that we help, that we're the number one contributor helping on climate in the area and we have a lot more to do in partnership together.

Patricia Karvelas: The Prime Minister of Tuvalu spoke to me earlier, and made it clear that Pacific leaders will resist attempts by Australia to water down climate change commitments including saying that there should be no new coal mines and there should be a phasing out of coal in the system. Has Australia been trying to water this communique down behind the scenes?

Alex Hawke: Well no, the discussions on communiques happen at every multinational forum and every country has their position. Australia's position on coal, obviously, is we won't have a communique where coal and coal-fired generation or phasing it out now is a realistic proposition. And we have our international commitments that we're meeting through Paris. We've got our agreed targets to reduce emissions and Australia's doing a good job in reducing our emissions profile. We- as the Prime Minister says regularly, we've beaten our Kyoto target substantially. We're on track to meet our Paris commitments. Our economy will transition to renewable energy over time. We have a quarter renewable energy under our climate solutions package we'll be generating in Australia and …

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. So just Minister, can I just get some clarity? You're saying to me that Australia won't sign up to a communique that talks about coal being phased out, and yet Tuvalu's Prime Minister told me earlier no matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn't give you the excuse to not do the right thing, he says. Cutting down your emissions, including not opening your coal mines, that is the thing we want to see. So clearly, it looks like there is a significant difference in what you're aiming towards. Could this mean that there is no communique or that talks break down?

Alex Hawke: Well Patricia, we wouldn't want to see talks break down but every country has their position, every country has the things that they need to stick with. Australia has a position that we need to stick with and …

Patricia Karvelas: Is it a red line- is it a red line issue for Australia? You won't sign up to a communique that …

Alex Hawke: Well, certainly. It certainly is a red line issue. It certainly is a red line issue but I'd go to the words of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama about this, and he made the point the best when he opened the forum. First time he's been here in ten years. He said on behalf, I think, of Pacific leaders he said I understand that Australia's reliance on coal historically, the economic success we've had through coal, and he understands that a lot of the support that we can provide for the Pacific on climate comes through this. And that Pacific Island countries are sovereign, but that Australia is also sovereign and that we shouldn't be told what to do about our domestic and economic arrangements. And I think that point- there's a great deal of respect between leaders when they get here today and all sit together. There's a great deal of listening. We listen to Pacific Island countries about what they need and we assist. But they also listen to us about the way our economy is structured, the plans we have in place, and what you read in the media isn't always what happens in the leaders' discussions, and I think that's a very important point. The respect between leaders today will be high. But yes, of course Australia has a red line position on coal like other people have red line positions on other issues.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. You say that, but the Tuvalu Prime Minister told me that their red line issue is that they're facing an existential threat, that this is serious, this is urgent. Australia is pushing a line, they say, that means that their future is basically over. That's what he told me.

Alex Hawke: Well Tuvalu has been making that point for some time in the United Nations, and here, and coming here in …

Patricia Karvelas: So why aren't you listening?

Alex Hawke: Well, we're listening very carefully. And when you come here, Patricia, you can't help but listen because it's a very small place threatened by climate change and you see it graphically on the ground. We're listening- Australia's lifted the commitment just this week to increase our spending. It will be the highest amount ever spent on climate in the region year on year that Australia will commit. And of course, we're going to meet our Paris target, so we're acting and we're a good international player and we listen very carefully to our Pacific country partners. Now, we'll also continue to have more bilateral conversations, including with Tuvalu about what we can do to help.

Patricia Karvelas: Speaking after that meeting of small island states, the Tuvalu Prime Minister also called on countries like Australia to continue to fund the UN's Green Climate Fund which helps developing nations cope with climate change. Will Australia commit more funding for the Green Climate Fund?

Alex Hawke: So the Green Climate Fund, Australia committed $200 million and we paid it, and whenever we make a commitment we meet it. So far it's had some success. We used to operate it and help operate it through its mechanisms. Look, there's been a lot of commentary here from leaders about the lack of finance flowing through to projects and the time it takes – in some cases up to two years, some of them have been commenting in the Pacific forum here – and we are going with our package. We think our know-how and experience and relationships in the region mean when we put up a fund – and we're putting up a $140 million fund to buy down risk in climate projects to unlock private sector investment – we believe that will have a greater impact faster than the Green Climate Fund …

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, so there is no new commitment to the UN's Green Climate Fund?

Alex Hawke: No, and look, we made that clear before the Pacific Islands Forum and I think leaders understand that's our position. They also have a view that the Green Climate Fund could operate better. We'd like to probably see that be the case.

Patricia Karvelas: Just briefly, China is also present at the Pacific Islands Forum and seeking to extend its influence. Does anger at Australia's position on climate change risk pushing some Pacific countries closer to China, and is that a risk you can really afford to take right now?

Alex Hawke: Well here at the Pacific Islands Forum we've had a lot of discussions on climate, about the economy, but I have to be honest with you Patricia there hasn't been any discussion on other countries like China or the US or anything. That discussion isn't here. The real issues on the ground are about the practical and regional issues and world issues that the Pacific has. So we are having those discussions. But the geostrategic issue is, I think, in the background and I guess the tenor here and Australia's position here is we welcome all partner countries who want to help on climate projects, on health projects, education projects, projects that will positively impact Pacific Islands countries. And I think that's the tenor of most of the discussions here across the board. Any country's welcome to help.

Patricia Karvelas: Alex Hawke, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Alex Hawke: Thanks so much Patricia.

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