Topics:  Antisemitic phrases; Senate motion; PMO’s secret manual to avoid answering questions; New Caledonia riots; 

16 May 2024


Matt Doran:  The Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, joined us earlier. Simon Birmingham, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. Your motion earlier today was that specifically targeting Fatima Payman?


Simon Birmingham: It was certainly in response and if you like, triggered by the actions of Senator Payman yesterday. She chose to go out before the media and utter the slogan and the chant “from the river to the sea”. This is widely accepted and acknowledged to be a chant used by those who do not accept the existence of the State of Israel. The Prime Minister himself has conceded that this is a very violent chant, that it can incite violence and that it can be inciteful towards antisemitism. One of his own Labor senators has used this slogan. If Anthony Albanese is to stand by what he has said, then he should denounce what Senator Payman has said and he should take action and show leadership and that’s been sorely lacking, because what we’ve seen in Question Time today is the Prime Minister refused to indicate at all whether he’s spoken with her or indeed, respond directly to her use of that slogan.


Matt Doran: That was one element of what Fatima Payman said yesterday. She also raised concern around effectively what many are seeing as a double standard here in this debate around the Israel-Gaza conflict, saying she was challenging her colleagues. How many laws does Israel have to break? How many lives have to be lost before Israel’s actions are called into question here? Does she have a point there that there does seem to be a disconnect between what’s happening on the ground and the public discourse here in Australia?


Simon Birmingham: Matt, there’s enormous scrutiny of Israel, enormous scrutiny of Israel. And that scrutiny applies from people who seem to forget that Hamas still holds hostages, Hamas is still fighting Israel, and that Hamas holds those hostages and conducts its terrorist operations, hiding behind the Palestinian people, who they just leave as human shields, facing the consequences of Hamas’s actions. Now there’s a real test for the Prime Minister in his leadership here. He’s condemned the use of this statement before. He has been very clear that it’s inappropriate. One of his Labor senators has used it. Why has he now gone silent on it?


Matt Doran: Use the term human shields there. I guess that does indicate that the Palestinian civilians are being caught up in this conflict.


Simon Birmingham: There is no doubt that the tragedy and the suffering and the loss of innocent lives is appalling. We would all wish that it come to an end and we have been consistent-


Matt Doran: But when you tens of thousands of people dead, you know, towns that are basically erased from the map. I’m curious how you would characterise that in terms of Israel’s actions? Fatima Payman has gone so far as to say this is a genocide. How would you characterise that?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the loss of all innocent lives is a tragedy. And this conflict, which was triggered on October 7th last year when more Jews were killed on a single day when Hamas deliberately targeted, slaughtered and murdered babies, children, young people at a music festival, it began then. Nobody could live alongside as a country, that type of terrorist threat. And we’ve been clear about Israel’s right to self-defence, but also clear that Israel should have regard to humanitarian law, that Israel should also have regard to humanitarian access and in relation to operations in Rafah I’ve also been very clear about the fact that this is an environment where many people have moved to, and if Israel is to undertake further operations there, they must do so with great care for innocent civilians. But this conflict could come to an end if Hamas were to release all of the hostages, surrender its terrorist leadership and terrorist infrastructure that it has built through a tunnel network estimated to be bigger than the New York subway system throughout Gaza. And that would see an opportunity then, for peaceful negotiations about the future of Gaza and hopefully progress towards a negotiated two-state solution, which is what we all want to see to, not just in the current bloodshed, but to end the decades of pain and suffering that has existed.


Matt Doran: There may well be some differing points of view on that one. But, you know, that is the nature of this conversation that we’re having. I do want to move on to another issue. And it was somewhat lost earlier in the week because all of the attention was on the budget that the Coalition has uncovered what you’re describing as a secret brief being sent out to government officials in the bureaucracy about how to handle questions that are put on notice. It’s this document here. Can you actually explain in layman’s terms what you allege this document is?


Simon Birmingham:  this is a document we’re not sure whether it was prepared by the Prime Minister’s office or the Prime Minister’s Department, but either way, it has Anthony Albanese’s fingerprints all over it. That is advice to all government departments about effectively how not to answer Senate questions. It gives multiple examples suggesting that when the Senate asks questions, there are options for departments to refer them off to other departments to essentially create a chase around where you never get an answer being bounced from one department to another. In other instances, to suggest that departments should routinely respond, saying that it would be a diversion of resources to answer the question. It’s basically a manual to provide a litany of excuses to avoid answering questions and is the complete opposite of what Anthony Albanese promised when he said there’d be a government of transparency. This shows them to be a government of secrecy.


Matt Doran: Bureaucratic obfuscation is not exactly a new art form in this town. Surely the Coalition would have, in its day in government, given similar advice to bureaucrats about how to handle this. Is the crime here that they’ve written it down?


Simon Birmingham: Matt, there’s certainly been challenges over the years that I’ve questioned previous governments about the adequacy of answers, and I’ve sat as a minister and been questioned about the adequacy of answers. But this is a systemic attempt by the Albanese Government to instruct all government departments on how not to answer questions, not only asked by the Opposition, but also asked by the Greens, asked by crossbench senators. The motion demanding that this information be tabled was supported by every single non-government senator. Greens senators, Pauline Hanson, Dave Pocock, Jacqui Lambie, Liberal and National Party. The whole lot of us were so aghast and so outraged at the Albanese Government’s secret manual on how to not answer questions, that we forced the government’s hand to have it tabled, and we will absolutely hold them to account for the many, many examples we can now see where ministers and departments have followed this manual to avoid answering simple questions. Straightforward questions. Budget questions about how many variations to budget estimates departments have undertaken. That is not a politicised question. That’s the type of question that senators should be asking, and government ministers should be answering. Yet the Albanese Government proposes that it refers you off to look at budget papers that don’t even contain the detailed answers that are being sought.


Matt Doran: One final question before we lose you, because it is a busy sitting day here, and you have a lot of pressures on your time, keen to get your thoughts on the situation that’s developing in New Caledonia, significant unrest there. What are your concerns about how that’s playing out?


Simon Birmingham: Matt, it is troubling. And this is where certainly we stand with the government in a bipartisan message of concern about the troubles that are occurring. Obviously, the loss of life and the violence that has been happening. We urge for calm. We urge for parties to engage in negotiations to ensure that the violence ceases. We urge Australians to heed travel warnings to be alert to them and we also extend our recognition and thanks to the Australian officials and others who are on the ground there, seeking to ensure the wellbeing and safety of not only Australians but others who we provide consular assistance to as well.


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


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Matt. My pleasure.