- Date published:
11:30 am, November 11th, 2023 - 9 comments
Categories: australian politics, climate change, Environment, global warming, International, Pacific, science, sustainability, uncategorized - Tags:
Two days ago the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano announced a major treaty. The two big significant elements are that Australia is offering permanent residency to people affected by climate change, and is also making a security guarantee that will bind both countries close together.
Before we wave our “oh no neocolonialism” shrouds, we only need a moment reflect on the deep and abiding relationship New Zealand has with the Cook Islands which was laid out with Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1975, reaffirmed in the centenary of relationship in 2001, and further enhanced in 2022.
The Cook Islands forms part of the Realm of New Zealand. The “Realm” is a politico-legal construct consisting of New Zealand and the states and territories that are constitutionally linked to it, namely the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and the Ross Dependency. The Realm of New Zealand unites the states and territories that were formerly British colonies and inherited by New Zealand but remain part of the Commonwealth, retaining the Queen as their Head of State.
But the clear-eyed swap in the Australia-Tuvalu deal is a recognition by a powerful state that it can and will actively re-house up to 11,000 people that are the total population of Tuvalu, in exchange for a potential military presence. The text of the new Treaty is here.
Notably it doesn’t alter anyone’s sovereignty:
[T]he statehood and sovereignty of Tuvalu will continue, and the rights and duties inherent thereto will be maintained, notwithstanding the impact of climate change-related sea-level rise”
And it’s not a license to go set up a great big fat military base. But it is a reasonably strong bind on Tuvalu to formally bind itself to Australian security and defence-related interests:
“Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters. Such matters include but are not limited to defence, policing, border protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure, including ports, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.”
This to me appears slightly stronger in state influence than New Zealand’s defence relationship with the Cook Islands where the agreement is that “[t]he Government of the Cook Islands has full legal and executive competence in respect of its own defence and security.”
One suspects an item that will come up soon is that Tuvalu is one of those Pacific states that still recognises the nationhood of Taiwan.
For a tiny and subsistence state like Tuvalu, getting their citizens automatic access to Australian education, healthcare, and income support as soon as a family arrives to Australia is a pretty strong incentive – and surely Australia’s most generous recent move for a wave of impending immigrants. Only 280 Tuvaluans would be fast tracked to residency and then on to citizenship per year. So it’s not a tap that will drain Tuvalu dry.
Tuvalu is at its highest about 4.5 metres above sea level. So this is a state highly vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge that will accelerate in intensity and frequency in the next couple of decades.
Two days ago Prime Minister Natano explained that “It’s my duty as the leader of a country that is going to be under water it that’s the way it continues, to make sure that my people have confidence that they can continue to stay if they want to or move to another home.”
To give a comparator, since 2014, 150 Fijian villages have been forced by storm surge and sea level rise to abandon their villages and move inwards. More than 600 other Fiji villages have been identified for removal.
A natural political question for New Zealand is what more could we do to enable island settlements in the Pacific to be assisted to manage inevitable inundation. We abandoned a major $500m sea rise protection project for Kiribati last year.
Australia is pledging to reclaim land in the nation’s capital of Funafuti, to increase the area’s land mass by 6%. This will generate more space for housing and other essential services, and given them essentially transition time for those who don’t want to leave yet.
Much as I hate to see New Zealand turn up to a Pacific Islands Forum conference without a practical deal to help people, full congratulations to Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Natano for a highly practical exchange of interests.