Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has apologised for comments about Pacific Islanders being able to survive the ravages of climate change by taking fruit-picking jobs in Australia.
Mr McCormack sought to dismiss criticism levelled at Prime Minister Scott Morrison following the Pacific Islands Forum, at which leaders claimed Australia was ignoring the threat climate change posed to vulnerable low-lying island nations.
In comments made on the weekend and first reported by The Guardian, he said: “They will continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit.”
On Thursday he apologised. “Well look, if any insult was taken, I sincerely apologise,” he said.
“But the fact is we’ll always be great friends of the Pacific Islands, and certainly, we rely on the Pacific Islands, we rely on them, largely.”
Mr Morrison had pressured fellow leaders to water down the PIF’s final declaration, removing references to cutting carbon emissions by phasing out coal.
Mr McCormack had told a conference on the weekend: “I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries who point the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector.”
“They will continue to survive, there’s no question they will continue to survive and they will continue to survive with large aid assistance from Australia.”
On Thursday, the Nationals leader said he was simply trying to highlight the importance of Pacific Islanders to Australia’s seasonal labour scheme.
“I come from an electorate where there’s a strong horticultural section, which couldn’t operate without the labour force that’s provided by the Pacific Islands.”
Former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong could not understand how Mr McCormack thought it was a smart comment to make.
“If you’re drunk, and in a bar, it would be an appropriate place and time to make the comment. But if you’re speaking as a leader, really it is not appropriate,” he said.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who hosted the Pacific Islands Forum, said the comments made Pacific Islanders sound like “paupers” who were begging for Australian support.