Australia’s new environment minister reportedly asked a former Pacific islands president dining in Canberra if he was after ‘cash’

Waves crashing over a roadway on the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Annika Dean

Labor senator Pat Dodson has accused the Morrison government’s new environment minister, Melissa Price, of insulting a former Pacific islands president during a dinner in Canberra on Tuesday.

Dodson wrote to the minister, Melissa Price, saying he was “appalled” that she supposedly said to Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati: “I know why you’re here. It is for the cash. For the Pacific, it is always about the cash. I have my chequebook here. How much do you want?”

The minister denied that’s what she said. In Parliament Price said she “100% disagreed” with Dodson’s recounting of the conversation.

“I’m very concerned that president Tong has been offended in any way,” she told Parliament.

“I have spoken to Senator Dodson today and asked him if he was able to provide me with a contact number for president Tong because I 100 per cent disagree with what he has said was the conversation.

“What I did say was that the Pacific is a very good friend and neighbour to Australia. In fact that’s exactly what I said to president Tong last night.”

But both Fairfax Media, which originally reported the claimed encounter, and the ABC, say they confirmed the alleged comments with multiple sources at the restaurant. Edmund Rice Centre director Phil Glendenning, one of the dinner group, also corroborated the comments.

Price had been dining with staffers at another table when the exchange supposedly occurred.

They echo recent comments by outgoing Coalition Senator Ian Macdonald who said there was “no doubting” the ability of Pacific Islanders “to extract a dollar where they see it”.

And in 2015, when Tony Abbott was PM and had just returned from a forum with Pacific island leaders on climate change, then immigration minister Peter Dutton, joked about having “water lapping at your door”.

Tong responded at the time that Dutton’s “arrogance” will continue to cause tension in the region.

Today’s incident is the latest in a string of embarrassing moments for the fledgling Morrison government, which earlier this week voted in support of a white supremacist motion from Pauline Hanson in the Senate. The “administrative error” resulted in another vote to defeat the motion for a second time with government senators this time voting against it, while several ministers apologised for what happened.

Dodson’s letter today accused the environment minister of “discourteous and offensive behaviour towards my dinner guest”, former president Tong, adding that “he deserves an apology.”

The senator’s party of four dining with Tong “were all shocked and embarrassed”, he wrote.

The letter was copied to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Tong, Kiribati’s president between 2003 and 2016, has been repeatedly honoured for his environmental work and his efforts to raise awareness about climate change and its potential impact on the Pacific islands region. Dodson also pointed out he was a former Nobel Prize nominee and close to ex US President Obama.

Tong subsequently attended Question Time today and was acknowledged by the Parliament. He is in the capital to discuss climate change