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It is time for the government to face the truth: they have given our islands a death sentence

By Aunty McRose Elu. Published in The Koori Mail

My hope is that our leaders will listen to our people and listen to our elders, come with an open mind and an open heart. When leaders act with respect and integrity then we can find a way forward together.

I come from Saibai island in the Torres Strait. Our island sits between Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia, and has been deeply connected to this country for thousands of years. 

The malu (ocean) vitalises us. When the wind blows, we receive the ocean spray on our faces. It’s energising, especially on humid days. Our livelihood is deeply connected to the oceans and the land. We’ve been taught how to grow food and how to hunt - our culture and spirit is tied to the winds, the stars, the animals. As part of my baptism as a baby, my mother removed my clothes and held me up in the sea breeze to be sprayed, to first be blessed, by the ocean. Malu is sacred to us.

Now, global heating is changing everything. The Torres Strait islands are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.  Our ancestors have lived in the Torres Strait for thousands of years. There are 17 inhabited islands, and 7 of them are now inundated by the power of the rising seas, and the worsening monsoon season.

After more than 40 years of advocating for climate action it is hard for me to think about the progress we could have made if the people in power acted when we first heard the warning signs, listened to the science and to First Nations peoples, instead of helping greedy people fill their pockets with fossil fuel money. 

Now, because of the lies and the inaction, our islands are sinking.

Everything is out of balance. Seagrass and corals that sustain the seafood are dying. Once fields of fruits and vegetables are now soaked and full of salt. During king tides and monsoons the islands are flooding and the shorelines are eroding. 

My community has been forced to take on the Federal Government in court in a class action led by Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul from our Guda Maluyligal nation. The Government is on trial for failing its duty of care to stop climate harm to our islands and people. 

This case is the first time that anyone in Australia has asked the Court to stop the Government from causing climate harm. For the first time in Australian history, we are arguing that the whole of the Federal government – not just one Minister or agency – has a duty to protect people from climate harm. 

Our community brought the case because we are fighting for our very existence and we are not being listened to. We want the Government to hear our voices, and act with integrity to quickly put us on the right path and limit global heating to 1.5 degrees.

For many years I have watched politicians make grand statements about how they care for our communities and livelihoods, but what they are doing is giving our islands a death sentence.

They shake hands with Pacific leaders who face the same fate as us while approving dozens of new fossil fuel projects.

They throw millions of dollars at sea walls while allowing more coal to be dug from the ground and exported overseas. 

They offer refuge to some of our Pacific brothers and sisters, while fighting us in court to keep releasing the very pollution that will force thousands of people across the Pacific and the Torres Strait to become climate refugees.

If successful, Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul won’t just be protecting their communities – they’ll be making us all safer from damaging climate change. Because the Government will have to act.

The evidence given by leading global climate scientists in Court last year in Melbourne made it clear: every country’s emissions are significant.  As former CSIRO Chief Scientist Professor David Karoly told the Court, climate change is a global problem but the solution lies with individual Governments. If they don’t act, they condemn us to the physical and spiritual catastrophe of losing our homelands.

We turned to the courts to have our say, in the hope that the Government will finally listen to us more closely, to respect our ways and our ancient wisdom, and fulfill - with integrity - its duty of care to our people, culture, heritage and futures.

In the meantime, I ask government leaders at the highest levels to come to Saibai and Boigu and see for themselves the damage to the islands and how their band aid solutions aren't enough. 

I dare them to come and feel the breeze, watch the children dance, taste the kaikai and feel in your heart what is at stake if they don’t act with integrity.

My hope is that our leaders will listen to our people and listen to our elders, come with an open mind and an open heart. When leaders act with respect and integrity then we can find a way forward together.

I arrived in Canberra with anger but also with love and care for our communities. If we walk together in one spirit, one mind, one strength and wisdom, we will find a way forward together. I’m confident that is how we will get there.


Aunty McRose Elu is a senior Torres Strait Elder, climate activist, and Queensland Senior Australian of the Year. She was a guest speaker at the 2024 Climate integrity Summit in Canberra.

Hearings for Uncle Paul and Uncle Pabai’s Australian Climate Case resume on April 29 in Cairns.

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