Islander community hurt over Michael McCormack's fruit picking comments

Reverend Iki Katoanga and deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
Reverend Iki Katoanga and deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Griffith's Pacific Island community has been "deeply hurt" by comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Mr McCormack has come under fire for dismissing the effects of climate change on Pacific Island nations "because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit".

Griffith's newly-appointed Tongan minister Iki Katoanga said Mr McCormack's comments had been "harsh".

"I think his words have hit a lot people in the heart, especially here in Griffith where we have a lot of fruit-pickers," Reverend Katoanga said.

"You can't pay somebody to feel good when their country is being taken away by the high sea levels."

Mr Katoanga has been to islands such as Tuvalu and Kiribati and seen first-hand how the rising tides have eaten away at the coastline.

He's seen entire streets lost to the waves, and each time he visits his grandfather's island in Tonga it's diminished in size.

Over the past few years some Pacific Islands have vanished entirely under the sea, and some of the smaller island nations are dangerously close to following suit.

"Money cannot replace land, it cannot replace history and culture," Mr Katoanga said. "I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister should go and see these places."

Mr Katoanga said that Mr McCormack's comments also undervalued the hard work done by fruit-pickers.

He's spoken to Griffith farmers who say that their farms would collapse without the hard work of fruit pickers from the Pacific Islands.

"When I toured Mildura I saw oranges spilling onto the road because they couldn't find fruit pickers," Mr Katoanga said.

Mr McCormack has apologised for his comments "if any offense was taken", and Mr Katoanga is hopeful that Australia's relationship with the Pacific Islands can remain strong.

"Well, look if any insult was taken I sincerely apologise. The fact is, we will always be great friends of the Pacific Islands and certainly, we rely on the Pacific Islands," Mr McCormack said at a doorstop interview in Canberra on Thursday.

"I come from an electorate where there is a strong horticultural sector for which couldn't operate without the labour force that is provided by the Pacific Islands that we value, that we treasure, that we encourage that and we want to continue.

"Indeed it will continue because of the great relationship Australia has with the Pacific Islands and I know that when the Pacific Islands are strong we want to be there to make them even stronger and when they're hurting we want to make sure that we are there to support them all the time as we always have in the past and we always will."

Mr Katoanga believes a strong relationship is crucial for the long battle against climate change.

"The blame should not be just put on the Australian government, I think everybody must learn to put aside their differences and work for the common goal," he said.

"Everybody has their part to play, and the key to this will be working together."

This story 'Money cannot replace land, culture or heritage' first appeared on The Area News.