A screenshot from the website of Canberra's La Rustica restaurant.
A screenshot from the website of Canberra's La Rustica restaurant.

‘Shocked and embarrassed’: Meal turns awkward

A GOVERNMENT minister is under fire for allegedly offending a former world leader during an awkward encounter at La Rustica restaurant in Canberra last night.

Environment Minister Melissa Price found herself at the same restaurant as the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, who was dining with Labor Senator Pat Dodson, among others.

Mr Dodson recalled his version of events in a letter he sent to Ms Price today.

"I know why you're here. It is for the cash," Ms Price allegedly "remarked loudly" to Mr Tong.

"For the Pacific it's always about the cash. I have my chequebook there. How much do you want?"

Mr Dodson claimed the four other people at Mr Tong's table were "shocked and embarrassed", and said he himself was "appalled".

"You should be aware that President Tong is a well-known international figure, close to President Obama and other world leaders, especially on our Pacific region. He is globally known as an advocate for action on climate change. He is a Nobel Prize nominee, and was the leader of his nation for over a decade. He deserves an apology," Mr Dodson wrote.

He also sent his letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Fairfax Media reports Mr Tong reacted to the exchange by telling Ms Price it was "nice to meet you", before later rolling his eyes at the incident.

Environment Minister Melissa Price. Pic: Kym Smith
Environment Minister Melissa Price. Pic: Kym Smith

Kiribati has been in Australia's headlines for the wrong reasons before. In 2015, a microphone caught then-immigration minister Peter Dutton joking with prime minister Tony Abbott about rising sea levels in the Pacific.

The pair's meeting was running late. Mr Dutton quipped they were running to "Cape York time".

"We had a bit of that up in Port Moresby," Mr Abbott replied, referring to talks he had just returned from involving leaders from the Pacific Islands.

"Time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door," Mr Dutton said.

Mr Abbott and Mr Dutton both laughed - until Scott Morrison pointed out the microphone hanging above their heads.

Mr Tong, who was still Kiribati's president at the time, called Mr Dutton's joke "vulgar".

"What kind of person is he? As long as there is this kind of attitude, this kind of arrogance in any position of leadership, we will continue to have a lot of tension," he said.

Which brings us back to today's latest bout of tension.

In Question Time today, Labor's Mark Butler asked Ms Price about her conversation with Mr Tong at the restaurant.

"Does the Minister deny saying those words to the former president of one of the nations most affected by climate change and sea level change in the world?" Mr Butler asked.

"Today I received a letter from Senator Dodson with his recollection of a conversation," Ms Price said.

She told parliament she was at a gathering at the restaurant when she "stumbled across this group" and went over to introduce herself.

"I am very concerned that in some way the president has been offended," she said.

"I 100 per cent disagree with what he (Mr Dodson) has said is the conversation. I see the Pacific as a very good friend and neighbour to Australia, and that is exactly what I said to President Tong last night."

Ms Price said she considered Mr Dodson a friend - but her displeasure with his intervention was obvious.

"Some friend, I have to say," she remarked.

The incident was also raised by Penny Wong in the Senate.

"The Minister has contacted Senator Dodson to say she disagrees with his interpretation of the conversation and has also contacted the guest to ensure there was no misunderstanding," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in response.

Ms Payne said the Pacific was "a very important focus for this government and for me".



Former Kiribati president Anote Tong. Pic: The Australian
Former Kiribati president Anote Tong. Pic: The Australian