Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has announced a new pact with the low-lying island country of Tuvalu, allowing residents facing displacement from climate change the ability to resettle in Australia.
In a move which could transform Australia’s relationships with other small Pacific nations and the region as a whole, Mr Albanese announced the agreement at the Pacific Islands Forum in Cook Islands, flanked by Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano.
The agreement will see 280 people per year given a “special mobility pathway” to “live, work and study” in Australia. Tuvalu has a permanent population of about 11,000 people.
In return, Australia will have effective veto power over Tuvalu’s security arrangements with any other country.
“With the Pacific the best placed to support the Pacific’s own security, Australia and Tuvalu will also mutually agree cooperation with other countries in Tuvalu’s security sectors,” the agreement reads.
The agreement comes as Tuvalu’s viability is threatened by rising sea levels as climate change escalates, with the country flagging a potential move into the digital world.
“As a low-lying nation it is particularly impacted by climate change,” Mr Albanese said at a press conference on Friday.
“Its very existence is threatened. I believe developed nations have a responsibility to provide assistance and that is precisely what we are doing.
“[This is] the most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever.”
Mr Natano described the deal as a “beacon of hope”.
“It’s not just a milestone but a giant leap forward in our joint mission to ensure regional stability, sustainability and prosperity,” he said.
It is the first time that a Pacific Island nation has agreed to such an intimate relationship with Australia – and the first time that Australia has offered residence or citizenship rights to foreign nationals because of the threat posed by climate change.
Anna Powles, a Pacific expert and senior lecturer in defence and security at Massey University, told the ABC the agreement happened “at speed and under immense secrecy”.
“It is hugely significant,” she said.
“It comes at a time when the sentiment for self-determination — and Pacific-led priorities and agendas — is at an all time high [and] this agreement would appear to be counter to some of these sentiments.”
She said the treaty would provide a model that some smaller Pacific countries also threatened by climate change, such as Nauru and Kiribati, may be encouraged to consider.
“However, it does not create a pathway for other [larger Pacific] countries.”
Mr Albanese and Mr Natano met earlier this week on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands Forum where they discussed Tuvalu’s plan to adapt to climate change — but neither country flagged this agreement after that meeting.
There are already several independent Pacific states that have associations or “compacts” with larger outside countries.
Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Marshall Islands all have a Compact of Free Association with the United States, giving Washington authority over their defence issues in return for US government services and the right to live in the US.
Similarly, New Zealand has arrangements with Niue and Cook Islands, which gives Wellington responsibility for their defence.
Australia’s climate responsibilities
Mr Albanese was in Cook Islands this week to participate in the Pacific Islands Forum — the region’s biggest and most important annual meeting.
Australia’s role in the region, and the fact it continues to expand its coal and gas industries as the world approaches a climate tipping point, was seen as motivation by some Pacific watchers for Mr Albanese to come armed with climate-focused announcements, such as the Tuvalu agreement.
Some expected Mr Albanese to announce a climate change fund for the region at the Forum, but Mr Albanese on Friday said he’d make “further announcements” at an appropriate time.
Speaking after the Tuvalu agreement was announced, Greens leader Adam Bandt said Labor must “accept responsibility” for the “damage it is causing to places like Tuvalu for backing more coal and gas”.
“It would be even better if Labor didn’t cause the damage in the first place and stopped approving new coal and gas mines,” he said.