“The interests of the Australian public need to be a priority,” cited the opposition Whip, Warren Entsch, as the reason for refusing to allow a parliamentary pair that would allow  Tony Burke, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to fulfil his commitments at the Rio+20 sustainable development summit in Brazil.

The Rio+20 gathering is 2012’s biggest international event. It has been dubbed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon as “too important to fail” and a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to make progress on sustainable development goals.

Heads of state from more than 130 countries will arrive in Brazil this week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard will join the talks on Wednesday after the G20 Summit in Mexico.

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The event comes 20 years after the historic Earth Summit was held in Rio in 1992. The original summit, attended by former US President George W. Bush and 107 other heads of state, resulted in two major global treaties — the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Along with the 40-page Agenda 21 statement, the Forest Principles, and the Rio Declaration, these documents form the foundation of international environmental law.

Rio+20 is designed to reaffirm commitments made at the first Earth Summit and develop up-to-date action plans to counter the environmental crises that have worsened since the first summit.

The opposition’s refusal to allow Burke a pair means Australia will be one of only a few countries not to send its environment minister to the negotiations.

Negotiators and international non-governmental organisations attending the summit have condemned Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt for the move. “It’s a low and immoral way to score a political point at the expense of crucially important negotiations that could map out a new course for cleaner and brighter economic future,” said Iain Keith, from the 14-million strong global online advocacy organisation Avaaz. “Frankly, the international community expects better from Australia.”

Speaking with negotiators in the conference halls today, the news that the Australian environment minister wouldn’t be attending led to more than a few raised eyebrows. Jorge de Carvalho from the South African government delegation told Crikey it would be a shame if Burke did not attend. “Considering the calibre of the summit and the important issues at stake, of course it’s extremely important to be represented at the highest possible level,” he said. “It’s really a pity that we cannot have the environment minister from the government of Australia.

“Over the next two days they [environment ministers] will be streaming in and that is a recognition of the level and stature of the conference.”

There was some speculation that Burke would still be attending part of the summit, after Coalition environment spokesperson Greg Hunt told Sky News on Sunday that Gillard and Burke would be there for “critical elements of the conference”. Hunt said the opposition was being “very generous” in allowing pairs for Rio+20.

But late last night Burke clarified that the opposition’s refusal to allow him a pair until after question time on Tuesday will mean he will miss the entire summit, due to the timing of flight schedules between Australia and Brazil.

“To clarify it does mean I won’t be there,” he said on Twitter. “I can’t justify the conf if I’m cancelling most meetings and not at our own event.”

The event Burke referred to is the launch of a program on indigenous rangers, Australia’s main side event at the summit. The event will be held on Wednesday evening and is part of Australia’s effort to encourage countries to prioritise greater involvement by indigenous peoples in environmental management.

It seems that Greg Hunt has an unusual understanding of what happens at international negotiations, telling Channel Nine that “The government can quibble about not having an extra day sitting on the beach at Rio”.

So far, this correspondent at least hasn’t seen any negotiators sitting on the beach. On the contrary, the talks are taking place at Riocentro, a soulless convention centre an hour and a half’s bus ride from Rio’s famed beaches. Talks start early and go late into the night, with harried negotiators lucky to grab a coffee between meetings, let alone a ray of sunshine on the sand.

As for the opposition Whip’s comment about the interests of the Australian people?

“I’m not sure what would be more in Australia’s interests than preserving clean air, clean water and healthy soils,” said Linh Do, a 21-year-old student from Melbourne University and member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition attending the talks as an observer. “I wish the Coalition would put aside partisan politics for just one week and recognise that the outcomes in Rio could determine whether the whole world — Australia included — will have a future worth living in.”

*Anna Rose is on the ground in Rio reporting with daily updates from the Summit. Rose is author of the book Madlands: A Journey to Change the Mind of a Climate Sceptic.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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