Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has accused the Australian government of taking a "big step backwards" in its relations with the Pacific, after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack was captured on tape saying island nations affected by climate change would continue to survive by picking Australian fruit.
Footage published by The Guardian shows Mr McCormack at a business function in Wagga Wagga, after Australia stymied efforts by small island states to get Pacific-wide consensus on their declaration for stronger action on climate change.
The watered-down agreement ended marathon talks at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Tuvalu, where the smaller Pacific nations had been pushing for a phase-out of coal in the power sector, which Australia resisted.
But Mr McCormack, who was acting prime minister at the time, told the function the Pacific nations would be fine.
"(I) 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 they will continue to survive," he said.
"They will continue to survive, there's no question they will continue to survive, they will continue to survive with large aid assistance from Australia.
"They will continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit."
The Fijian Prime Minister responded to the comments on Twitter.
Fears comments could push Pacific into China's arms
The shadow Minister for the Pacific, Pat Conroy, said Mr McCormack's comments had rubbed salt into fresh wounds.
"They're incredibly offensive, they're ill-informed, are counter-productive and will further undermine Australia's position in the Pacific," he said.
Mr Conroy said he was concerned the remarks would have diplomatic consequences in a region where China was gaining an increasing foothold.
"It can only make them more predisposed towards China," he said.
"Our goal always has been to be the partner of choice for Pacific island nations.
"Mr McCormack's inflammatory and ill-informed comments force the Pacific to look towards other partners and that's bad strategically for Australia, and it will lead potentially to very dire repercussions down the road."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended Australia's relationship with the Pacific when asked about the comments in Adelaide on Saturday.
"Australia has the deepest engagement and biggest commitment of any nation in the world in the Pacific," he said.
"Australians should be very proud of the way we work closely with our Pacific family.
"We're there for the difficult conversations, we're there for every time of conversation with our Pacific family.
"We've always been there, we will always be there."
A spokeswoman for the Deputy Prime Minister declined to comment.