Topics: Israel-Hamas conflict; Labor trickery on foreign aid budget; 

04:05PM AEDT
Thursday, 26 October 2023


Matt Doran: Well, the Foreign Minister is tied up in Senate Estimates hearings today, but we are joined by her Shadow Liberal Senator, Simon Birmingham. Senator, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. The sentiment that Penny Wong has expressed there about the Government’s concerns around Gaza and what is happening there. Is that a sentiment shared by yourself and other members of the Coalition?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Matt, we’ve spent the day exploring a range of foreign policy issues and most notably, of course, the tragic events unfolding in the Middle East this morning during Foreign Affairs Estimates. We’ve been very clear as an Opposition that we supported a bipartisan motion through this Parliament last week, one that clearly and emphatically condemns Hamas and their actions and their terrorist atrocities they’ve committed that unequivocally backs Israel’s right to exist and right to self-defence, and the ambition to remove Hamas from any position of power or influence. But of course, we also are concerned for innocent lives and the loss of innocent lives that has occurred since 7th October – Israeli and Palestinian lives that have been lost, we wish to see the flow of humanitarian assistance in as many ways as possible, so long as it does not aid or abet Hamas in terms of their continued activities. So, we give full support to the type of international efforts that are being made to get that humanitarian assistance through, as well as to Israel and their efforts to remove Hamas.


Matt Doran: Do you think Israel’s actions in cutting off food, water, energy, blocking many aid convoys into Gaza? Although we do have to note some are getting through in recent days. Do you think that is an appropriate response to these initial attacks that everyone has condemned by Hamas almost a fortnight ago now? Is it a proportionate response to that initial attack?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve got to be very careful about the types of general claims that can be made in these areas, there is a lot of disinformation that exists. The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is, of course, one between Gaza and Egypt. There are a number of parties involved in discussions to secure access of more humanitarian flow through that. Israel is not the only party involved in terms of the ability of opening that crossing. Not only do we wish to see humanitarian assistance flow through, we wish to see foreign nationals, including Australians who are in Gaza, able to leave across that border crossing, and that has not been possible to date either. So, we give again all support to parties to work with Egypt and others to try to get those foreign nationals out, get the humanitarian assistance in. Critically, amongst people who should be able to get out of Gaza are the hostages who, we should not forget, are still being held by Hamas and along with the Palestinian people in general, are being used as a human shield by the terrorists.


Matt Doran: But I think specifically to my question, is the ongoing siege of Gaza a proportionate response to the initial attacks by Hamas?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the response by Israel is to seek to remove Hamas from a position of influence and ability to conduct in the future similar horrific terrorist attacks. That’s an appropriate response. They should act in accordance with international laws, and they should be absolutely mindful in terms of civilian lives lost and impact. And that is why the targeting that occurs in terms of their attacks into Gaza needs to be targeted on Hamas militants and Hamas capabilities. It is why they need to do as they have done before and provide appropriate warnings to civilians in terms of the types of attacks that will be underway. But this is a very challenging, very difficult situation that Israel finds itself in to attempt to remove a terrorist power acting on its doorstep.


Matt Doran: Some of your colleagues in the Coalition have criticised members of Labor’s frontbench, Ed Husic and Anne Aly in particular, for some of the comments that they made last week with regards to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, saying that Palestinians are being collectively punished for the actions of Hamas and that there should be consideration of war crimes investigations into the future. How is it inappropriate for those two members of Anthony Albanese’s frontbench to be voicing concerns that do seem to be resonating right around the world?


Simon Birmingham: Well, consistency does matter, and consistency of language matters, particularly from a government and from the cabinet ministers of government. We would expect all ministers to be following the consistent language of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister as the lead spokespeople in this area. There are a lot of sensitivities that apply there, and I certainly have not heard those lead spokespeople of the government making those claims or using that type of language. Again, people need to be really careful in terms of how they describe these matters, to not create any type of false equivalencies between the actions of Hamas that targeted innocent civilians, babies, children, the elderly, versus Israel in acting in ways of self-defence, seeking to remove Hamas from office.

People also need to be careful to not buy into disinformation, and we’ve seen the tragic power that can have already in terms of the way in which the explosion that occurred, sadly, at a hospital in Gaza last week was portrayed for nearly a day as being Israel’s fault when all of the evidence demonstrates that it was yet more terrorist activity and, tragically, that incidents which saw more Palestinian lives lost not because of Israel, but because of terrorists operating within Gaza, saw those lives lost, but also saw President Biden, for example, lose the opportunity to sit down with a number of Middle Eastern leaders from Arab countries and try to work through how this conflict is contained and responded to. And so that’s why such care needs to be used in language and in terms of what is accepted as being fact, when in fact it may well be disinformation.


Matt Doran: But can’t multiple issues be true and appropriate at the same time? You can condemn Hamas attacks. You can respect the right of Israel to defend itself and you can also raise valid humanitarian concerns. How is that a crisis of messaging as you seem to be making out?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s if that is what you’re doing. It’s not. That is precisely, for example, what the United States is doing at present. We have heard Secretary Blinken backed, of course, by the President, call for consideration of humanitarian pauses. And I note that that the government here has followed that in terms of the statement made by Secretary Blinken to the UN Security Council. And we all want to see humanitarian pauses. As Secretary Blinken said, so long as they do not aid Hamas in their activities or undertakings. So, consideration of how you minimise the loss of civilian life, you help to get humanitarian assistance into the region are important factors and need to be a big part of the dialogue happening with the region. But it’s always got to be done mindful of the fact that the war is being caused by a terrorist act, and by the objective of removing those terrorists from a position of power or ability to repeat such terrorist acts in the future.


Matt Doran: A note that while the Middle East crisis has been dominating discussion in estimates today, you’ve been in with the Foreign Affairs Department. You have also claimed to uncover evidence of some misleading information when it comes to Australia’s aid budget. Can you explain your assertion here?


Simon Birmingham: So, after the last budget, we couldn’t quite work out because it didn’t seem to add up how the Government had come to be making the claims it was about the scale of additional contribution to Australia’s aid, budget and development assistance. So we asked the Independent Parliamentary Budget Office for work and what their work has exposed is that in the October Budget, the first Albanese Labor Government budget, they actually cut the indexation of foreign aid only then to restore it in May this year, but didn’t tell anybody about the cut last year. It was buried in the budget papers outside of the forward estimates. And then in May this year, they restored it and claimed that they were putting some $3.2 billion back into the Budget, that they’d only cut themselves late last year. So, it was a great act of trickery and exaggeration in terms of the additional support for foreign aid and development assistance, and a real concern in terms of the willingness of this Government to be transparent about its budgeting and the decisions it’s making.


Matt Doran: But it is still an increase to the aid budget? Just to be clear.


Simon Birmingham: There are other increases to the aid budget, but this is the case of the Government taking with one hand, then giving back and claiming credit for giving back what it had cut itself. I mean, that is far from transparent. If they haven’t actually revealed the cuts in the first place, the money was there. It was left in the budget by the previous Coalition government. Labor cut it and then without telling anybody, they’d cut it, tried to claim credit for giving it back. That is just trickery. It’s fiddling the books, essentially, and it certainly was exaggerating the claims in terms of how much they were giving in additional support for development assistance.


Matt Doran: Is it a hard argument for the Coalition to run, considering it’s copped a fair bit of criticism while it was in office about its handling of the foreign aid budget? Indeed, there were some frontbenchers who said, there shouldn’t be any increases in foreign aid when you were in government.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the point here, Matt, is one of honesty and transparency. So it’s not necessarily a debate about the foreign aid budget or development assistance itself. It’s about fiddling the budget books and a lack of transparency. If this cut was taken as a decision in the first Albanese Government, why didn’t they tell anybody about it? Why was it buried outside of the forward estimates not revealed as a government decision. But then when it came to the second Albanese budget pumping up its own tyres to say, well, we’re giving all of this extra money, when in fact some of it was just reversing a decision they’d not told anybody about themselves.


Matt Doran: Simon Birmingham, we do have to leave it there. Thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Matt, thanks. My pleasure.