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Australian Environment Minister Melissa Price has been accused of offending a key Pacific leader by declaring the region was “always” seeking cash from Australia, in a disputed remark that has triggered a new storm over government policy on climate change.
Price is said to have told former Kiribati president Anote Tong, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, that she had her “chequebook” ready because it was “always about the cash” when Pacific Island leaders came to Australia.
The remark in a busy Canberra restaurant on Tuesday night, in front of several witnesses, sparked a rebuke to the minister over her “offensive” behaviour and an attack on her performance in Parliament.
Fairfax Media has spoken to two sources who confirmed an account of the conversation by Western Australian senator Pat Dodson, who introduced Price and Tong at the restaurant.
“I know why you’re here,” Price told the visiting leader, according to Senator Dodson.
“It is for the cash. For the Pacific it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want.”
Price told Parliament she “100 per cent disagreed” with this account of her remarks and insisted she told Tong the Pacific was a good friend to Australia.
With climate change a key issue in the Wentworth byelection this Saturday, Labor climate change spokesman Mark Butler used Question Time to challenge Price over the remarks and intensify questions over whether the government could meet its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Labor environment spokesman Tony Burke called on Price last night to “correct the record” after claiming she misled Parliament on the conversation and on climate policy.
Tong, who led Kiribati from 2003 to 2016, was dining with senator Dodson, Edmund Rice Centre director Phil Glendenning and Oxfam climate change expert Simon Bradshaw at La Rustica restaurant in the Canberra suburb of Kingston and was introduced to Price, who was dining with staff close by.
Glendenning told Fairfax Media that Price asked Tong why he was in Canberra and was told he was in Australia to talk about climate change and was hoping to have a meeting with her.
“Is it about the cash?” Price replied, according to Glendenning.
“It’s always about the cash. I’ve got my chequebook over there. How much do you want?”
Fairfax Media was told that Tong responded to Price by saying it was “nice to meet you” but he later described the exchange as unfortunate.
Tong is said to have rolled his eyes and told his friends he was not in Canberra for a cheque.
Senator Dodson wrote to Price on Wednesday to criticise the "discourteous and offensive behaviour" and to ask her to apologise to Tong.
In his letter, Senator Dodson relayed his account of the words the minister spoke: “I know why you’re here. It is for the cash. For the Pacific it’s always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?”
Senator Dodson noted in his letter that there were four people at his table with Tong.
“They were all shocked and embarrassed,” he wrote.
“You should be aware that president Tong is a well-known international figure, close to president Obama and other world leaders, especially on [issues affecting] our Pacific region,” Senator Dodson wrote.
“He is globally known as an advocate for action on climate change. He is a Nobel Prize nominee and was the leader of his nation for over a decade. He deserves an apology.”
Senator Dodson also sent this letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Price told question time she was very concerned at the way the remarks had been relayed in Senator Dodson's letter, given she had considered the West Australian senator to be a friend.
“Some friend, I have to say,” Price said in Parliament.
“I'm very concerned that president Tong has been offended in any way.
“I have spoken to Senator Dodson today and asked him if he was able to provide me with a contact number for president Tong because I 100 per cent disagree with what he has said was the conversation.
“What I did say was that the Pacific is a very good friend and neighbour to Australia. In fact that's exactly what I said to president Tong last night.”
Price responded again after question time, telling Fairfax Media that she was disturbed by a "completely inaccurate" representation of the conversation.
“I approached Senator Dodson’s table to greet him and his dinner guests, and we had a very cordial and relaxed conversation,” Price said.
“Former president Tong and I discussed the prospect of meeting officially at some point in the future. At no point did I make the sort of comments Senator Dodson is alleging.
“I have spoken to Senator Dodson to convey that I unequivocally dispute the version events described in his letter addressed to me. I spoke to former president Tong a short time ago and he thanked me for reaching out to him.”
Fairfax Media has sought comment from Tong. When he was asked by Sky News about the matter, he did not dispute Senator Dodson's account but said it was "irrelevant to the mission that I am on" regarding climate change policy.
Speaking to Fairfax Media after question time, Glendenning stood by his account of the conversation and the account from Senator Dodson.
“Senator Dodson's letter is 100 per cent accurate. I was at the table and I can confirm that,” Glendenning said.
“It is very unfortunate. Anote Tong is a serious global figure and a world leader on climate change.”
Glendenning is president of the Refugee Council of Australia and a human rights advocate who has been director of the Edmund Rice Centre since 1996. The federal government made him a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day honours last year.
The government has offended Pacific leaders in the past, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton caught on camera joking about rising sea levels after a visit to the region.
“Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door,” Dutton said in September 2015.
Tong strongly criticised those remarks and said Dutton should "search his own soul" about his arrogance.
“What kind of a person is he? As long as there is this kind of attitude, this kind of arrogance in any position of leadership, we will continue to have a lot of tension,” Tong said at the time.
Queensland Liberal National Senator Ian Macdonald last month also claimed Pacific countries were always seeking money to deal with climate change.
“They might be Pacific Islanders, but there’s no doubting their wisdom and their ability to extract a dollar where they see it,” Senator Macdonald told the Senate.
The federal government is increasingly anxious about rising Chinese influence in the Pacific and has tried to assure regional leaders that it will keep its commitments on climate change.
Asked 10 days ago if Australia should withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, Morrison named alliances in the Pacific as a key reason for staying in the global compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The question really is what is to be gained by that, other than people questioning Australia’s commitments and international agreements we’ve entered into,” Morrison said.
“In particular, those in the region in the Pacific, this is a very important commitment that we’ve made,” he said.
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