Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing his first foreign policy test ahead of a regional visit next week, as Pacific leaders urge him to deepen Australia’s cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and cement Australia’s commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change.
The moves heighten pressure on the new Prime Minister to confirm his stance on the global climate deal as two new cabinet ministers take on the Energy and Environment portfolios amid talk of a policy reset.
Fiji Prime Minister Josaia "Frank" Bainimarama wrote to Mr Morrison on Monday to congratulate him on his elevation while also seeking a commitment to tackle carbon emissions.
“We cannot settle for business as usual and we certainly cannot tolerate any backward steps,” Mr Bainimarama said of the urgent need to address climate change.
“I appreciate Australia’s commitment in this fight so far and I believe that this commitment must grow even stronger moving forward.
“This will include increased ambition in your commitments under the Paris agreement.”
The letter, seen by Fairfax Media, came after Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine also congratulated Mr Morrison and highlighted the drought along eastern Australia.
“The Paris agreement is a vital tool in the fight against climate change and for helping protect your Pacific neighbours,” Ms Heine tweeted to Mr Morrison.
The message from Mr Bainimarama carries special influence because Fiji chairs the United Nation’s COP23 round of climate change negotiations and expects Australia to deliver on its pledges.
Mr Morrison has cancelled plans to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru next week and is sending Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne instead, with climate change one of the major items on the agenda.
Government backbenchers have called for a withdrawal from the Paris agreement during the debate on energy policy in recent weeks, with Nationals MP Keith Pitt quitting the ministry over the issue last week.
The government has set a target to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, while Labor is pledging a 45 per cent reduction. Coalition MPs have baulked at legislating cuts to emissions in the federal bill linked to the National Energy Guarantee, the policy that helped trigger last week's leadership crisis.
Mr Morrison said “everybody knows” that the climate is changing when asked in Queensland on Monday whether he thought the drought was linked to climate change.
“It’s not a debate I’ve participated a lot in in the past because I’m practically interested in the policies that will address what is going on here right and now,” he said in Quilpie.
The Australian position now depends on a future cabinet decision on how to reset the National Energy Guarantee, with new Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Environment Minister Melissa Price charged with fixing the issue.
Amid tensions over China's growing influence in the Pacific, Senator Payne said ensuring Australia was the "security partner of choice" in the region.
Mr Morrison's first overseas trip as Prime Minister will be to Indonesia to sign a landmark free trade agreement with President Joko Widodo.
Asked on Monday about Australia's commitment to the Paris agreement, newly installed Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg said Australia would not damage its economy in pursuit of climate goals.
"And that is the key, we are not going to have a recklessly high target," Mr Frydenberg told ABC radio. "What we are going to do is be a good global citizen, but ensure that Australians are always first and ensure that jobs are being created and that we don't do anything that damages the economy."
Environment Victoria chief Erwin Jackson said Pacific nations expected Australia to meet its Paris commitment.
"The Pacific Island Forum will be the first real foreign policy test for the government," he said.
"Reneging on our international promises would illicit hostile responses from our neighbours and allies. If you are not a good friend on climate change, other countries will not be inclined to be good friends on issues Australia might care about like China’s role in the region and regional security and trade."
David Crowe is the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.