Australian Deputy P.M.'s 'fruit picking' barb 'blatantly racist'

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, has drawn fierce criticism from Samoans for suggesting Pacific Islanders would survive a climate crisis thanks in part to opportunities for fruit picking jobs in Australia.

The comment has been described as "blatantly racist" and "ignorant" by prominent Samoan, Yuki Kihara.

The Deputy Australian P.M. made the comments at a business forum on Friday after Australia's environmental policies came in for heavy criticism at a Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu last week. 

“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive," he said. 

“They will continue to survive, there’s no question they’ll continue to survive and they’ll continue to survive on large aid assistance from Australia.

“They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit, pick our fruit grown with hard Australian enterprise and endeavour and we welcome them and we always will.”

Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had lobbied against a declaration calling for coal to be rapidly phased out of use at the the 50th Pacific Islands Forum (P.I.F.) meeting on Thursday. 

Yuki Kihara is a multi-disciplinary artist from Samoa. She published a poem the morning after Mr. McCormack’s comments were revealed by Australian media.

“Your fruit grows on lands that does not belong to you,” she wrote.

“I think it’s blatantly racist and ignorant of Australian Deputy P.M Michael McCormack to say that the Pacific region is surviving on Australian aid and industry given their colonial history within the Pacific region,” Ms. Kihara's said about her poem. 

During the 19th and 20th Century Australian industry brought an estimated 60,000 Pacific Islanders to the states of Queensland and New South Wales, often by force, kidnapping or trickery, to work on cotton and sugar plantations in a practice known as "blackbirding". 

Australia's history of phosphate mining in Banaba (modern day Kiribati) has also been highly controversial. 

Both issues are highlighted in the poem. 

“Given the long list of atrocities committed by the Australian government including their refusal to close down the coal mine industry that’s accelerating climate change, their aid should not be used to mask the on-going colonial violence inflicted onto generations of Pacific people,” Ms. Kihara said.

The recent P.I.F. meeting relaunched longstanding questions about whether Australia had a rightful place in the regional body.

In an interview with the Guardian, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said negotiating on the communique was “one of the most frustrating days I have ever had."

“I thought Morrison was a good friend of mine; apparently not," he said.

Mr. McCormack was attending a business function when he was asked by a climate change campaigner about the “lack of urgency” Australia brought to the Forum.

He said Australia would not be “hijacked” into shutting down their coal industry, something the Pacific Island states need to mitigate the rapid rise of global temperatures.

“I will always be a proud Australian who will defend those industries and we will not be de-industrialising Australia,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.

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But Ms. Kihara wants to remind him, and others of the history of their lucrative industries.

“The phosphate was manufactured into superphosphate fertilizer and applied to farms across Australia which led to their prosperous farming and dairy industry,” she said, adding that mining rendered Banaba uninhabitable and caused it people to be sent to the island of Rabi in Fiji. 

“The Island of Banaba today can no longer bear fruit due to the severe environmental devastation caused by the mining activities Australia was part of. 

“There are also alarming reports of Pacific fruit pickers being exploited in the Australian farming industry, reminiscent of black-birding.”

Her poem finishes concludes on a poignant note: “Your fruit grows in abundance because you have taken ours.”

Notwithstanding Mr McCormack's comments Australia’s history of formally employing people from the Pacific to work in fruit picking jobs is short. It only launched its Seasonal Workers Program in 2012.

Researchers from the Australian National University published a paper finding Australia's programme was only a fraction of the size of New Zealand's. 

For every 1,000 backpackers picking fruit and vegetables in New Zealand, there were 3,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific, the researchers found; in Australia, for every 1,000 backpackers, there were only 250 Pacific workers..

Before 2012, the horticulture industry employed tourists, but research by the Australian Government found they did not stay as long, and were less productive than Pacific Islanders. 

The Guardian Australia reported that Mr. Morrison would not compromise on removing references to coal in P.I.F. communique, and would not support a statement by the Pacific Island Development Forum calling for the “immediate global ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and coalmines and for all countries to rapidly phase out use of coal."


Youth-led environment organisation ProGreen Samoa’s Treasurer, Leanne Moananu, said Mr. McCormack’s comments were deeply disheartening, especially in the wake of Australia weakening the P.I.F communique.

“My heart was so heavy when I read they didn’t endorse the Tuvalu Declaration which had stated that all the countries should phase out coal,” Ms. Moananu said.

“The Prime Minister of Australia went into Parliament with a lump of coal, and hugged that lump of coal, so of course they were not going to make these concessions for us.”

(Before he took on the top job Mr. Morrison famously brought a lump of coal into the chamber of Parliament for use as a prop in a speech).

She said Australia was also facing severe consequences from a forecast warming of the planet by 1.5 degrees, as extreme drought and forest fires in the country are already attributed to climate change.

And she argues Mr. Morrison's offer of AU$500 million in redirected aid funding for ‘climate and disaster resilience’ was of little comfort.

“They won’t even give us a fighting chance at survival, but they are willing to say here, take some money. 

“Maybe this money will help the fact that your doomsday is getting closer, it will comfort you in some way.”

She said after watching Australia at the Forum, there is a bigger need for a regional grouping that excludes it. 

“We have to find a way to have a collective Pacific voice without Australia on climate change because obviously they are not on the same page as us," she said. 

“Now we have this declaration where the small island states are saying we are in a climate crisis, and Australia is saying ‘eh, not so much, that is debatable.’”

See more on page 21.

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