Pacific islands will survive climate crisis because they 'pick our fruit', Australia's deputy PM says

Exclusive: Michael McCormack says island nations want Australia to shut down industry ‘so they can survive’

Michael McCormack 'annoyed' at calls to end coal so Pacific islands 'can survive' – video

Pacific island nations affected by the climate crisis will continue to survive “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit”, Australia’s deputy prime minister has said.

Michael McCormack’s comments were made after critical talks at the Pacific Islands Forum that almost collapsed over Australia’s positions on coal and climate change.

Fears are growing the situation might come at a diplomatic cost for Australia in a region where China has become increasingly influential.

McCormack, who has been the acting prime minister while Scott Morrison attended the forum in low-lying Tuvalu, attended a business function in Wagga Wagga on Friday.

“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.

“But the fact is we’re not going to be hijacked into doing something that will shut down an industry that provides tens of thousands of jobs, that provides two-thirds of our energy needs ... and I’m only talking coal, let alone all of our other resources.”

The acting opposition leader, Richard Marles, said on Friday evening: “These are ignorant comments from the acting prime minister and he should know better”.

On Friday afternoon, before McCormack’s comments were made public, the former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, told ABC Radio National that Australia must show respect to the Pacific and its concerns about the impact of global heating.

“Climate change and the consequences of it are an existential matter for the Pacific,” Turnbull said.

“If you are a Pacific islander and your home is going to be washed away by rising sea levels caused by global warming then this is not a political issue, it’s an existential one.

“So it’s critically important that we show respect to the Pacific islanders and that we are seen to be helping climate change, both in reducing our emissions as part of a global effort, and of course as we do providing them with substantial resources to adapt to climate change.”

McCormack’s comments were made in response to a question from Trudi Beck, a local general practitioner who has been campaigning in Wagga Wagga for action on climate change.

Beck’s Friday protests, on the lawn outside McCormack’s electorate office, have become increasingly prominent. Last month, Guardian Australia reported comments McCormack made to Beck disputing evidence of global heating.

Beck questioned McCormack at the function on Friday and said she felt “embarrassed” by Australia’s lack of urgency during Pacific talks.

“I’ve never been embarrassed to be Australian and I never will,” McCormack responded.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve just given another $500m to our Pacific island neighbour friends.

“The fact is we went to our election with our policies writ large. So we will put our policies in place. What we won’t do is we won’t listen to the Bob Browns of the world and say we should be shutting down our resources sector. We won’t say that we should be ashamed of those people who wear hi-vis vests.

“I will always be a proud Australian who will defend those industries and we will not be de-industrialising Australia.”

McCormack’s comments are not the first time a senior member of the government has been recorded making controversial remarks about the impact of climate change in the Pacific. In 2015, the then immigration minister, Peter Dutton, was caught by a live microphone joking with Morrison and the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, about rising sea levels.