Pacific leaders have congratulated Scott Morrison on his surprise election victory but have urged him to do more to fight the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat to the region.
“[Australia] has been lagging behind,” said Tuilaepa Sailele, the prime minister of Samoa, about Australia’s action on the climate emergency.
Speaking to the Guardian from Dublin, where he is attending the World Rugby Council, Sailele congratulated Morrison on his victory, saying he had met him at last year’s Apec meeting in Papua New Guinea and found him to be “an excellent leader for Australia and the Pacific”.
Asked what message he would send to Morrison and his government as they started their new term, Sailele said: “A very simple message: climate change is the single most dangerous challenge facing planet Earth, especially Australia with its many forest fires, its droughts, its flooding in northern Australia and of course the need to preserve marine life in coral reefs.”
Sailele agreed that Tony Abbott’s defeat in his seat of Warringah, attributed in part to his views on climate change, which he once described as “crap”, was a warning that voters would not tolerate climate science-denying views among leaders, as they see the impacts of the climate breakdown around the world.
“I think it is a great lesson also not just for [Abbott] but many others to know exactly what his constituency wants.”
Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji, also urged Morrison to act on climate change, which he called “the most urgent crisis facing not only the Pacific, but the world”.
In an effusive personal post on Facebook, Bainimarama congratulated Morrison, whom he described as “my friend”.
“Headed by you – a leader whose trips to our shores long preceded your time in politics – the newfound closeness between Fiji and Australia feels not only genuine, but personal,” he wrote.
The Fijian prime minister, who has been a leader on the world stage on the subject of climate action, urged Morrison to be a good “earthly steward” of Australia.
“In Australia, you defied all expectations; let us take the same underdog attitude that inspired your parliamentary victory to the global fight against climate change,” he wrote. “By working closely together we can turn the tides in this battle,” he wrote.
The prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, also congratulated Morrison, saying PNG had “a close working relationship with Scott Morrison and the Coalition government”.
Sailele denied reports he had been hoping Australians would vote for a Labor government, which sprang from a comment he made last week after a summit between Pacific leaders and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, in Fiji.
Guterres was asked about the “debate in Australia during our election campaign about climate change” and sidestepped the question. But the Samoan prime minister jumped in and said: “I think we should worry not too much about it. The question will be answered by the voters. Let us keep our fingers crossed.”
Sailele’s comment was interpreted as expressing hope for a change of government but Sailele said he had been “misquoted deliberately”.
“What I said was, the voters in Australia will decide on the government they would prefer, so there was therefore no need to speculate which government will win, that’s the voters’ prerogative,” he said. “I did end with a reference to ‘keep your fingers crossed’. That was my fatherly advice to those who think too much ahead, to trust the wisdom of your Australian voters.”
acific leaders have previously voiced their frustration at Australia’s inaction on the climate emergency. On a visit to Australia earlier this year, Vanuatu’s foreign affairs minister, Ralph Regenvanu, said Australia needed to “step up” its efforts to combat the climate crisis.
“For over an hour we had MPs talking about all the natural disasters that are affecting Australia,” Regenvanu told Sky News. “So I think there has to be some recognition in this country of the fact that climate change is impacting Australia.”
After the Australian budget was announced in April, confirming Australia would no longer pay into the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing nations and small island states fight the climate crisis, Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands, wrote on Twitter that the decision was “deeply disappointing”.
“The Pacific is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts and the challenges we face are only set to increase,” she wrote. “We look to our regional partners for leadership and solidarity. Not this.”