New Australian PM heads to Tokyo with climate message


Australia’s new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (centre) is set to fly to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quad. – AFP photo

CANBERRA (May 23): Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took the oath of office Monday and immediately flew to a Tokyo summit with a “message to the world” that his country is ready to engage on climate change.

The 59-year-old centre-left Labor Party leader was sworn in during a brief televised ceremony at Government House in Canberra.

In a hurried post-election schedule, he flew out of the country shortly afterwards to join a Tokyo summit with the US, Japanese and Indian leaders, known as the Quad.

Albanese said he would meet one-on-one with each leader in Japan.

But he singled out the United States as Australia’s “most important partner” and noted that President Joe Biden called him the previous evening for a “fruitful” conversation.

The Tokyo talks will be “a good way to send a message to the world that there’s a new government in Australia”, Albanese said in his first news conference as prime minister.

“It’s a government that represents a change in terms of the way that we deal with the world on issues like climate change.”

On China, Albanese said the relationship with Beijing would “remain a difficult one”.

The two countries have not held ministerial-level talks in two years, and China’s government has hit a range of Australian goods with politically tinged sanctions.

“It is China that has changed, not Australia, and Australia should always stand up for our values,” he said.

But he also vowed not to “play politics” with national security, a common ploy by the outgoing conservative government that helped fray ties with Beijing further.

– ‘Optimism and hope’ –

Albanese has frequently reflected on his personal journey towards the nation’s highest office after being brought up by his struggling single mother in Sydney public housing.

The new leader says he wants to transform his country, too.

In recent years, images of smouldering eucalypt forests, smog-enveloped cities and blanched-out coral reefs have made Australia a poster child for climate-fuelled destruction.

Under conservative leadership, the country — already one of the world’s largest gas and coal exporters — has also become synonymous with playing the spoiler at international climate talks.

That record allowed a score of independent candidates — mostly women offering climate and anti-corruption measures — to plunder once-safe conservative Liberal Party urban seats.

Albanese has vowed to adopt more ambitious emissions reduction targets and make the sun-kissed continent-nation a renewable energy superpower.

He set out a string of other goals, too: setting up a national anti-corruption commission, giving indigenous people a constitutional right to be consulted about policies that affect them, and offering affordable childcare to allow more women to work.

“I look forward to leading a government that makes Australians proud, that does not seek to divide,” he added.

“People do have conflict fatigue.”

– ‘Down to business’ –

Official results showed Labor was expected to win in 75 seats — almost within reach of the 76 required for a majority in the 151-seat lower house. A handful of other races are still too close to call.

Albanese said a Labor majority “looks most likely”. But he had already secured support from five independent and small party members to ensure Labor can govern.

After the meetings with Quad leaders on Tuesday, Albanese said he would return to Australia the following day and convene a meeting of his ministers next week.

His top team include Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who will join the prime minister in Tokyo, Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher — all sworn in Monday.

Notable among the foreign leaders who have welcomed Albanese’s election are the ones from Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels.

“Of your many promises to support the Pacific, none is more welcome than your plan to put the climate first –– our people’s shared future depends on it,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

It is already clear that the vote was a political earthquake in Australia.

For many Australians, the election was a referendum on polarising former prime minister Scott Morrison.

Voters responded at the ballot box with a sharp rebuke of his Liberal-National coalition — ousting top ministers from parliament and virtually expelling the party from major cities.

For Morrison’s conservative allies, the defeat is already spurring a battle for the soul of the party.

A leadership contest is informally underway, with moderates blaming the loss on a drift to the right. – AFP