Topics: Death of Australian aid worker in Gaza; International Democracy Union (IDU) Forum 2024, Asia-Pacific 

4 April 2024


Greg Jennett: Peter Dutton and his Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham find themselves in the New Zealand Capital today. They’re there to talk to like-minded leaders of democratic countries. Simon Birmingham joined us from studios right across the road from Wellington’s Beehive. You are in Wellington New Zealand for international democracy union talks but I want to start much farther afield in the Middle East. The upheaval caused by the killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers this week. Can those killings even partly be explained as typical of things that happen in war?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, these are clearly very tragic events, and they are actions that should not have happened, and the tragic deaths should not have occurred. It’s entirely appropriate that Israel be expected to have a full investigation of them and to be completely transparent about the outcomes of that investigation and we should all then judge that based on the outcomes and any further steps that should be taken based on the outcomes of those investigations.


Greg Jennett: Was the Israeli Prime Minister insensitive or dismissive in saying those very words, “this happens in wartime”, in relation to this attack. Certainly, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong have both rebuked him now for using those words?


Simon Birmingham: Certainly, tragedies do happen in war and mistakes do happen in war, but it’s also important to understand the deep, deep concern and distress that is felt in Australia, the compassion for all of the families involved, all seven workers, of course the Australian but all of those and all the other lives lost. Now these tragedies are just part of what has been an enduring tragedy since the barbaric attacks from Hamas on October 7th and the way in which Hamas has used the citizens and people in Gaza as human shields and embedded itself under civilian infrastructure and all of that has meant that the loss of life in trying to rescue hostages, in trying to disable Hamas’s terrorist operations has been far greater than it would have been were Hamas a normal military operation rather than the horror terrorist operation that it is. But everyone should be sensitive to those who are grieving, feeling enormous pain and these inquiries should be fully full and transparent in their undertaking.


Greg Jennett: I know you and Coalition colleagues await the full and final outcomes of that investigation, yet the preliminary approach taken by the Israeli government says they have found a grave regrettable mistake at hand here. If that is indeed the final finding of the investigation by the IDF what punitive action would go or should go with a grave regrettable mistake at war?


Simon Birmingham: Greg, I’ll want to understand how the mistake came about. And exactly what was the nature of the mistake in terms of the missile that ultimately hit this vehicle. There are still explanations required in terms of any type of explanation of error or mistake and those explanations should then inform what the next step should be including any consequences.


Greg Jennett: Alright, veteran aid worker Tim Costello has suggested an independent international investigation could be ordered by affected countries, obviously that includes Australia. I think he’s also suggested the federal police from this country could be involved in such an investigation. Should that be pursued or the right to hold such an investigation be reserved pending the Israeli one?


Simon Birmingham: Let us see what the outcomes are, the degree of investigation and the appropriate transparency. Other decision can be taken from there. This is a war situation and tragedies are occurring all the time. Unfortunately, this is now involved an Australian citizen just as Hamas’s attacks on October 7th saw an Australian citizen killed. Now we should expect in this case from Israel that they adhere to international law and with a friend and partner and supporter like Australia they are full and thorough in their investigations and transparent in the outcomes of those and as I’ve said, we can all then assess what next steps may or may not need to be taken once we’ve seen those outcomes.


Greg Jennett: Let’s bring it back to matters within the Indo Pacific region Simon Birmingham, matters that I think might be touched on by you in the International Democracy Union there in Wellington. US deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has told Washington think tank that AUKUS submarines could have a range of applications in different scenarios including “Cross strait circumstances” obviously a reference to Taiwan. This is really spoken about in the AUKUS context but are patrols between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland a primary purpose of AUKUS submarines?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we don’t talk about what the actual operational activities of our existing submarine fleet Collins-class are, nor would anyone expect us to around future fleets of the AUKUS submarines. Ultimately, we have them to be able to engage in a range of activities, the reason why we switched from traditional diesel-powered submarines to invest in nuclear powered submarine capability was to ensure Australia could maintain range, could maintain stealth and those types of operational capabilities are essential for our Navy in all of the different scenarios we might deploy them in the future.


Greg Jennett: So, did Kurt Campbell misspeak in being so explicit about what he called the various or variety of scenarios that these particular AUKUS nuclear powered submarines could be engaged in?


Simon Birmingham: I haven’t seen the full context of Kurt Campbell’s remarks. He is one of the biggest supporters of the alliance with Australia and a great ally and friend to us but it sounds to me like he was addressing hypothetical scenarios. I’ve just outlined when it comes to the actual operational decisions having sat there at the national security committee table myself, we don’t come out of there and talk about the precise types of missions that we deploy our most secret and stealth capabilities into operations for. The whole point of it being stealth capability is to be able to operate in secret.


Greg Jennett: Alright understood, let’s move on to another matter closer to home right here in the Pacific. China is increasing its activity in Tonga ahead of that nation hosting the Pacific Islands Forum later this year. Delegation of six police officers from mainland China will be sent to Nuku’alofa and there is also an offer I think further vehicles and motorbikes for the holding of the summit. Is this Chinese interference in the PIF, the Pacific Islands Forum, given it has no membership status in that forum whatsoever?


Simon Birmingham: Speaking here in New Zealand with many ministers of the New Zealand government but also leaders from other countries around the region, the need for strong engagement in the Pacific is at core of many of our discussions. The Pacific Islands Forum is one of the most important pieces of regional architecture and it should be supported by members of the Pacific Island forum. It is deeply concerning for any suggestion that security or other resources for the Pacific Islands Forum to be held in Tonga would need to be provided by any nation outside of the PIF membership and this demands some urgent explanation and action by the Albanese Government as to how this has come about, how they’ve let it occur and what action they’re going to take to ensure that the PIF meeting is supported by PIF nations, that Tonga is supported in its hosting by PIF nations exclusively and that in doing that we are providing confidence to all PIF members, many of whom I am sure would be concerned about the idea that a non-member state in this case China would be providing support that is and should be provided by Pacific Islands Forum member states such as Australia and New Zealand and the other nations


Greg Jennett: Just to follow-up on that briefly, you say actions should be examined or should be taken to exclude non-members playing this security role. Should Australia perhaps fill that breach if there is a breach there and add additional security resources for Tonga to host the summits?


Simon Birmingham: As I said, this does demand urgent explanation and action from the Albanese Government as to how it’s come about and how anybody has let this occur, what steps can be taken now to ensure that the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tonga is supported and led and facilitated by Pacific Islands Forum member states. If Australia needs to provide more security, more vehicles more services or support, we should step up and we should do so in coordination with all of the other member nations of the PIF.


Greg Jennett: Well, I’m sure someone has noted your comments here this afternoon back home in Australia, Simon Birmingham, if not elsewhere. We’ll see if that has any repercussions on this and other matters. Really appreciate you finding some time for us from Wellington, and we’ll see you back in Australia before too long.


Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, thank you very much Greg for the opportunity.