Hello from Whoville

Dr Seuss’ stories are charming, heart-warming and a delight from start to finish.

Unless you’re inside one. Then they ain’t so fun.

In Senate Estimates this morning, Labor senator Penny Wong pressed government officials to recognise that Australia is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the international community in terms of climate commitments. She cited the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and South Korea, all of whom have joined a rising chorus of nations committing to carbon neutral goals.

Any sane person would applaud the senator for pushing this, and pushing hard. It’s shameful and downright irresponsible for the government to refuse to do more than ‘acknowledge’ the global trend.

For Pacific islanders, though, the exchange was infuriating. Both sides of it.

I admire Penny Wong. I think she’s a woman of deep principle, redoubtable intellect and remarkable political savvy. But today, I feel like she was ignoring us. Gesturing right over our heads, pointing at Europe, North America, Asia, and utterly ignoring Australia’s nearest neighbours.

Pacific island nations invented the Greater Ambition movement, goading the Paris Agreement’s adherents to move further and faster. We have been instrumental in every recent COP, driving our larger neighbours to accept the reality of climate change and the need to act decisively.

Pacific Islands Forum members have established themselves as confident and competent leaders on the world stage. That confidence has translated to success in other areas as well, including fisheries and regional security.

We got the Boe Declaration signed, which recognises climate change as the single great threat to our security in the region.

And we got Australia to sign it.

That’s no mean feat, given how much of the Canberra establishment sees us either as a blue wilderness, or corrupt and completely malleable. At our very best, we seem to be perceived as a client, lacking any agency of our own, whose importance is directly related to the cold calculus of geostrategic variables.

Every Dr Seuss lover loves Horton, who hears the Whos in time to save them from destruction.

But you know what? Living here in Whoville—aka the Pacific—ain’t so great. We only get noticed when we all yell, all at once. We’re ignored by everyone at first, then we’re heard only by the one character who’s even capable of listening. Only at the last minute are we heard by the others (one of whom is a kangaroo!!).

Only seconds before, that kangaroo was preparing literally to fry us in oil.

Art imitates life, folks.

With apologies to Theodore Geisel, “A country’s a country, no matter how small”.

And you know how the real-life story goes? We get ignored again and again. We watch developed nations arguing over our heads as if we were children in a pre-divorce household.

Except we’re not bloody children. And this house is all any of us have got.

If I were mayor of Whoville, I’d be a lot more stroppy. I’d probably tell Senator Horton, ‘High time you listened. We’ve been yelling for years. What took you so long?

And the kangaroo?

I’d remind the kangaroo that it signed the Boe Declaration, that if it cares a jot about its status in Whoville, and in the international community, it would honour its word, accept its responsibilities, and quit treating us Whos like children.

Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we’re stupid. You may not be hearing us, but we’re hearing every word from you. Even the ones you’re not saying.

Especially the ones you’re not saying.