A proposal from Kevin Rudd to address the impacts of climate change on the Pacific has been labelled as “imperial thinking” by Tuvalu’s leader, who lambasted the former prime minister’s suggestion to swap Australian citizenship for maritime resources.
Mr Rudd wrote in a recent essay that Australia should offer citizenship to residents of the small Pacific nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru in exchange for control of their seas, Exclusive Economic Zones, and fisheries.
“Under this arrangement, Australia would also become responsible for the relocation over time of the exposed populations of these countries [totalling less than 75,000 people altogether] to Australia where they would enjoy the full rights of Australian citizens,” Mr Rudd wrote.
But the idea — which in essence would see the countries give up their sovereignty — has been strongly criticised by Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, who warned it amounts to a form of neo-colonialism.
“The days of that type of imperial thinking are over,” Mr Sopoaga told the ABC.
“Certainly [we will] not to be subjugated under some sort of colonial mentor; those days are over.
“We are a fully independent country, and there is no way I’m going to compromise our rights to fisheries resources, our rights to our immediate resources.”
Australia, New Zealand and Pacific nations last year signed a declaration calling climate change “the single greatest threat” to Pacific people.
Tuvalu is made up of nine low-lying coral atolls and its highest point is just 4.5 metres above sea level, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change.
‘United States of the Pacific’
Mr Sopoaga pointed out that Mr Rudd’s proposal comes after Australia exported $66 billion in coal last year, making it our most valuable traded commodity.
“The more [Australia fails to be] serious about cutting coal mining and exporting this for money, the more problematic the issue of global warming and the more we have to adapt,” he said.
“These are the real issues that need [to be] settled and addressed, and perhaps leaders of Australia could focus more on that.”
Instead, Mr Sopoaga has called for the establishment of a Pacific supra-state, along the lines of the European Union, that is “based on cooperation and integration, perhaps into some sort of United States of the Pacific”.
Mr Sopoaga says this would be a more realistic way for small Pacific Island nations to amplify their concerns about climate change on the global stage.
“We will stand together to address issues of sustainable development, climate change, plastic pollution and the management of our shared resources,” he said.
‘There is no Plan B’
Mr Rudd’s key proposal is to relocate citizens of Pacific Island nations to Australia once rising sea levels make these nations uninhabitable, pointing out that their populations combined is less than half of Australia’s total annual immigration intake.
“If these countries start to submerge in the years ahead, Australia would face international pressure to provide safe haven for our Pacific neighbours anyway,” he wrote.
“In effect, they would become climate change refugees and the world would look to Australia for leadership.”
He suggested that Australia should consider developing a proposal “to enter into formal constitutional condominium” with Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru, similar to the current arrangement with Norfolk Island — a plan that would require all four countries to change their constitutions.
Mr Sopoaga dismissed the idea, saying that urgent action on climate change was what was needed.
He pointed to the recent fires in Malibu and floods in Far North Queensland to demonstrate climate change has the potential to make the entire planet unliveable, not just Pacific islands.
“The cause is not only about small island countries, it is everybody’s cause, everybody’s safety and security of living on this planet — there is no Plan B,” he said.
“The message is for the world to work urgently to cut down the cause of climate change.”