Topics: Lebanon travel warning for Australians; Senator Payman leaves ALP;  Protestors on Parliament House

07:15AM ACST
5 July 2024


Mark Levy:  Well, hasn’t it been a big week in Canberra? We’ve had protests on top of Parliament House, a senator quitting her party after crossing the floor, but now the attention has shifted to Lebanon. The federal government is urgently drawing up plans to evacuate up to 20,000 Lebanese Australians from the country, and they’re doing so to prepare for war between Israel and the Iranian backed militant group Hezbollah. In the past few hours, Hezbollah has launched more than 200 rockets and attack drones into northern Israel. It was in response to the death of one of its senior commanders, who was killed in southern Lebanon. So tensions are running high, and with the threat of war on the horizon, the federal government is preparing for the worst. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He joins me on the line. Senator, good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good day. Mark, it’s good to be with you.


Mark Levy: Well, Labour’s scrambling to establish a plan to potentially evacuate these 20,000 Lebanese Australians. If war breaks out, will they be ready?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Mark, we would hope that they should be ready. Peter Dutton and I indeed requested last week and received yesterday a briefing from the government. We believed this was a likely and potential problem, which is why we reached out early and ensured that that we expressed our concerns. And our concerns are around a few levels. The first is the messaging to Australians at present, and let me be really clear to listeners, that message has to be don’t go and if you are there, get out. That is the very clear. Nicely put. Do not travel advice, but don’t go if you’re thinking about it. And if you are in Lebanon and an Australian citizen, get out now while it is easier to do so. Because any Australian government will have limitations on what they can do, but indeed the government does need to have plans and I understand they have worked up different contingencies, but it depends upon what type of conflict might ensue as to how those contingencies are enacted, which is why people should leave now and should not go, because you cannot guarantee that the Australian government can get you out of a place like this. But one of the other key things is the Australian government also needs to be making sure there are appropriate security checks on any individual, particularly non-citizens, but potentially family members who might be seeking to accompany citizens out of that conflict. Because we know there are terrorist fighters, Hezbollah fighters and other associates sadly, throughout Lebanon. And we don’t want to see that sort of terrorist risk imported into Australia.


Mark Levy: Senator, what did you make of Labor’s stern warning to our Israeli ambassador? Mind you, it wasn’t delivered by Penny Wong. It was delivered by the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts. The Government is threatening to pull their support if Israel decides to go to war with Hezbollah. You’re saying that’s a bad idea?


Simon Birmingham: Mark, it was pretty appalling and appalling on two scores. Firstly, how it was done and secondly, what was done. As to how it was done. Penny Wong or Anthony Albanese didn’t front up themselves. It was done frankly, in an insulting manner. And it seems to have been a calculated insult to Israel to send in the assistant minister rather than Penny Wong doing it herself. Secondly, the message and it’s the wrong message to send. Hezbollah has continuously sent missiles and rockets into Israel. They do so to kill Israeli citizens. They’ve driven thousands of Israelis from their home. They are in breach of UN orders and resolutions in terms of non-occupied zones in southern Lebanon. All of that means the pressure should be on Hezbollah, their affiliates and associates, Iran and indeed Lebanese authorities, and to try to ensure that the terrorists are stopped. Not telling Israel that it can’t defend itself. And that’s indeed why yesterday I moved a motion in the Senate to very clearly state that Australia reaffirms its support for Israel’s inherent right to self-defence, whether it’s attacked by Hamas terrorists, Hezbollah terrorists, Iran or any other terrorist organisation.


Mark Levy: Onto Fatima Payman, speaking of the Senate, she’s quit the Labor Party and will now sit on the crossbench as an independent. From the outside looking in, how do you think this has been handled by the Prime Minister?


Simon Birmingham: Pretty haplessly by Anthony Albanese. He’s again changed position multiple times over this, creating great confusion as to what his own party rules are and whether or not he would enforce them. And ultimately, her decision to go was just that her decision, not the Prime Minister’s leadership or decision on these matters. So, you know, this is a case where on the substance, Anthony Albanese’s continued, changing of the government’s posture towards Israel hasn’t appeased people. It’s just driven the left to demand more. And we can see that very vividly in Fatima Payman but then his handling of this issue within the Labor Party has meant that they’ve spent weeks now talking about themselves, confused about their own rules and their own approaches, unable to effectively govern themselves and not focusing on the cost of living pressures that so many Australians are facing.


Mark Levy: Couldn’t agree more. The protests yesterday for pro-Palestinian protesters scaled Parliament House in Canberra. They were up there for about 90 minutes, if memory serves me correct, they’ve been banned from the area for two years. I understand you’ve written to the Prime Minister demanding that they should feel the full force of the law.


Simon Birmingham: Peter Dutton and I did that yesterday, demanding indeed just that the book should be thrown at these individuals. There also needs to be a full investigation as to how this occurred. Did they get any insight, help or assistance? How did the security breaches occur? Everybody’s got a right to free speech. But how you go about that free speech, how you protest matters. And these were protests that put, frankly, the lives of security and other officials in danger by being in a very perilous and high position on the edge of Parliament House. And they were also protests that saw an anti-semitic slogan strung from the front of our nation’s parliament, a shameful stain on this building and our security should be able to prevent that from happening.


Mark Levy: Well said. And just before you go, I’ve been covering over the last 20 minutes or so, the exit polls out of the United Kingdom, where the polling booths have closed. It appears to be a Labour landslide, as has been the expectation. Out of interest. Have you had much to do with the predicted new prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer?


Simon Birmingham: I did meet Keir Starmer back when he was the Shadow Brexit secretary, and I was the trade minister and our then high commissioner to London, George Brandis, had the foresight to recognise Keir Starmer as a likely future senior figure within the Labour Party in the UK, and to ensure those relations were built. I’ve no doubt that if there is a change of government in the UK, which seems likely, that government will really be committed to the type of security partnerships and other things that that we have with Australia. It’s disappointing that Anthony Albanese won’t be at the NATO summit next week, where he could meet with Keir Starmer himself and of course, ensure that the AUKUS and security and defence partnerships and a range of other cooperation we have get off to a flying start. But he’ll be busy doing we don’t know what, because he hasn’t been able to say why he can’t go.


Mark Levy: All right. Senator Simon Birmingham, you have a great weekend and we’ll catch up soon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Mark. My pleasure.