Topics: Israel-Hamas conflict; PM visit to US; China tariffs on Australian wine; Voice; Royal Commission into child sexual abuse;

09:20AM AEDT
Sunday, 22 October 2023


David Speers: Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. David. Good to be with you.


David Speers: Is Israel, in your view, engaging in collective punishment of Palestinian citizens?


Simon Birmingham: No, it’s not David. And it’s important that we do not allow moral equivalence to be drawn or to be sought to be drawn. The attacks of Hamas against Israel were horrific. They were targeting babies, children, the elderly and others, and they were targeting them because they are Jews. Israel is acting in self-defence, as Australia and many other countries around the world have recognised their right to do so. Israel is seeking to disable Hamas and its ability to be able to operate as a terrorist threat in the future, and that is exactly something that we should continue to support. While, of course, wanting to see Israel operate in ways that protect innocent lives as much as possible, and it is notable that they have provided warnings in relation to different activities undertaken that they’ve also shown restraint over recent days. In fact, now, the last couple of weeks, in terms of the timing of when any ground movements occur and it’s very welcome to see that first movement of humanitarian assistance going into the region.


David Speers: So, to those who are concerned about what’s unfolding in Gaza, the thousands of deaths there, including many children. Your argument is this is just an unfortunate consequence of Israel defending itself.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the loss of all human life in an innocent context is, of course, tragic and our heart goes out to absolutely everyone, be they Israeli or Palestinian, who are seeing loss of loved ones. But we have now for years seen Hamas, a terrorist organisation, engage in terrorist activities and also use the fact that it has been able to operate almost freely in Gaza to build up, in terms of a sense of governance, a capacity to undertake this horrific strike against Israel two weeks ago. They continue to hold a couple of hundred hostages. And so, Israel is well within its rights to defend itself. That is an inherent right it has and critically, for its future and the protection of others and for the well-being of Palestinian people. Israel is within its rights to seek to remove Hamas from an ability to undertake such strikes in the future, and hopefully from an ability to be able to rule over people living in Gaza as well. Because if we are to ultimately see a situation where Israelis and Palestinians are in a position to be able to talk, to negotiate, and to finally live peacefully side by side with one another, then there needs to be a structure other than Hamas in place and to be able to negotiate with. You can’t negotiate with terrorists in this type of instance. You can’t expect to get improved outcomes. What we’ve seen by Hamas sitting in power for so long and building its capabilities and capacity is this tragic, abhorrent action that has taken so many lives and is now causing so much human suffering.


David Speers: But is it justified to cut off all of those supplies energy, food, water? Is that justified?


Simon Birmingham: Israel, of course, is trying to work through what is an incredibly complex problem in terms of how they disable Hamas, how they remove them from power. We want to see humanitarian support available. We want to see individuals, who are innocent individuals, children and others in Palestinian areas in Gaza, able to access the types of humanitarian support in food, in water, in medicines that you would hope for. And of course, one of the fastest ways to see that sort of breakthrough occur would be for a wholesale release of those people still being held hostage by Hamas. We have seen a couple of people released overnight. But to get the types of breakthroughs in talks between Egypt and between Israel, to get the flows into Gaza that could occur, a big breakthrough could, I’m sure, be achieved if we saw that release, wholesale release of all of the couple of hundred, 210, it is estimated individuals being held hostage.


David Speers: Well, that would of course be wonderful. But if that doesn’t happen, my question is, are those restrictions on food and energy and water justified?


Simon Birmingham: Again, Israel is dealing with very complex situation. I’m not going to prejudge their military strategy. Egypt is-.


David Speers: You can say, whether it’s justified or not in doing what it’s doing.


Simon Birmingham: So Egypt is a key player here as well, in terms of their willingness to have the Rafah border open and what they are willing to see cross in both directions of that, that board.


David Speers: No, but this comes back to the whole question point about whether Israel is collectively punishing civilians in Gaza. You’re unwilling to say whether it’s justified in what it’s doing.


Simon Birmingham: At present, Israel is well within its rights to act in ways that seek to disable Hamas and to remove it from the position to be able to veto future terrorists attacks-


David Speers: Including cutting off the food and water and energy?


Simon Birmingham: We want to see humanitarian support. We want to see innocent civilians able to access food, water, medicines. And for that, if we could see the release of hostages, if we could see a flow of those supplies over the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, that would provide the types of breakthroughs while still enabling Israel to remove a threat that exists to itself and a threat that has undermined any prospect of peace for many, many years now.


David Speers: You’ve been highly critical of Iran for its role in funding and empowering both Hamas and Hezbollah. You warned in Parliament during the week that we shouldn’t be 5 or 10 years from now asking, what if could we have done more to prevent Iran unleashing atrocities, including nuclear atrocities? What are you suggesting we should be doing right now in relation to Iran?


Simon Birmingham: David, if we look at the terrible events that have struck the world over the last couple of years, it’s evident that bad faith actors don’t get better with time. President Putin in Russia, way back in 2014, assaulted Crimea, launched invasion into Crimea. He shot down Malaysia Airlines flight carrying civilians, including many Australians. And yet the world kept trying to find ways to deal with Putin. And then ultimately, we face the wholesale invasion of Ukraine last year.

In the case of Hamas. They have now governed Gaza as we’ve been discussing for a long period of time many atrocities undertaken in that time. And Iran, sadly, has an even longer track record in many ways of human rights abuses against its own people, of mobilising terrorist activities such as Hamas or Hezbollah. And so, we ought to be looking at the types of actions that can be taken, listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. Working as comprehensively as we can with other nations to ensure the sanctions regime is as tight as possible on Iran, to try to ensure that we limit their capacity to spread evil, to spread terror, and ultimately supporting the many brave Iranian people who have sought to see a change of regime in that country.


David Speers: So, you think the Revolutionary Guard should be a proscribed terrorist organisation by Australia?


Simon Birmingham: The Coalition does believe that should be the case. The IRGC sponsors terrorist activities around the world. Iran has been responsible in terms of driving and enabling Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRGC itself operates in ways that oppresses Iranian people, particularly women and girls. We’ve seen suffering for a long period of time, and yet showing such courage over the last couple of years since the murder of Mahsa Amini. The Senate committee, looking at these matters, recommended that the government should pursue listing of the IRGC, and if that requires changes to Australian legislation, then the government would have bipartisan support from the opposition to do that.


David Speers: Final one on this issue, Peter Dutton’s criticised Anthony Albanese for not going to visit Israel himself. Just explain to us why you think an Australian prime minister would be needed in Israel right now?


Simon Birmingham: This is a time for world leaders to ensure that they demonstrate support for Israel, and also that they, in demonstrating that support, engage in ways that can help to ensure the removal of Hamas, but also the respect of international law and of humanitarian access. Yes, we’ve seen the US President and the British Prime Minister. We’ve also seen the German Chancellor, the EU Commission President. We’ve seen leaders of Romania and the foreign minister of Canada and Italy. There are a number of leaders and countries, not all of whom, as the government has suggested, are members of the permanent five seats on the UN Security Council. A visit by the Australian Prime Minister, who is already going overseas this week, would be-.


David Speers: To a different part of the world to be fair. Are there any Jewish groups actually suggesting this, or is this more about politics on the part of the Coalition?


Simon Birmingham: It’s certainly been raised with me that a visit by the Prime Minister, or at the very least, a senior minister of the Australian government to Israel, would be very welcomed.


David Speers: Who’s raised, who’s raised that with you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m not going to go into the private conversations of each of my discussions with members of the Jewish Australian community, but I have had different conversations with those different organisations who have indicated it would be welcomed by them, and I am sure it would be seen as a strong statement of solidarity with Israel at this very difficult time.


David Speers: Well, the Prime Minister is going to Washington later today for an official visit. Can you just clarify? Does the Opposition think he should be going?


Simon Birmingham: The Prime Minister should, of course, engage internationally, and the fact that he has received this invitation from the US is one that is appropriate for a Prime Minister to take up. So that’s welcome in visiting the US. He should make sure that he has a serious agenda, one that is seeking to ensure, in relation to AUKUS, that Australia’s interests are protected, that we are seeing delivery of the legislation enabling the flow of technology, of materials and of people as quickly as possible to deliver upon the AUKUS commitments. He should also be, of course, clear and standing alongside President Biden, that Australia’s position in relation to Israel and the Middle East conflict underway is in lockstep. And I would also urge the Prime Minister to use this time and this trip to make clear Australia’s support for continued United States support for Ukraine. That conflict and that war should not be left to slide, and that the strong statements made by President Biden about the interconnectedness of the different conflicts and challenges we see around the world is something that Australia should pick up on and make sure that we are clear cut in our support for standing against Russian aggression in defence of the rules based order in defence of the sovereignty of nations like Ukraine.


David Speers: There is debate, as you know, in the US amongst Republicans over whether to keep supporting Ukraine. You’re suggesting that the Australian Prime Minister should tell the Americans when he’s there what to do?


Simon Birmingham: The Australian Prime Minister should always be cautious not to enter into domestic political matters when visiting other countries. But this goes to the consistency of our foreign policy and what we hope for from all of our allies and partners around the world. And so, continued support for Ukraine is an important feature that Australia should continue to deliver, and that we should be looking for all of our partners. Particularly those NATO nations led by the United States, and to continue to provide that support for Ukraine so that we are not entering a situation where a bad faith actor like Russia is ultimately able to prevail or partially prevail against a sovereign nation like Ukraine. And therefore, undermine not only confidence in the rules based order, but if they were allowed to prevail because others had stepped back, it would also be sending a terrible signal to other potential bad actors around the world.


David Speers: A couple of other quick ones. China has agreed to review the tariffs its imposed on Australian wine. Australia has agreed to suspend its WTO action while that review is underway. Do you welcome that breakthrough?


Simon Birmingham: It’s welcome. But these tariffs should never have been put in place in the first place. It was an attempt at economic coercion by China. The tariffs were never justified. And it is no doubt, no coincidence that China and Australia received the draft report from the World Trade Organisation into Australia’s appeal against these tariffs only in the last week. I am confident that draft report would have found that these tariffs were an act against the rules of the WTO. They are clearly in breach of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and the undertakings that China had given to Australia. And so, they should not just be reviewed, but they should be removed and removed forthwith.


David Speers: And finally, a week on from the Voice referendum defeat, can you just clear up for us what the Liberal Party’s position is now on constitutional recognition?


Simon Birmingham: We continue to support constitutional recognition, but it is clear that to take another proposal forward at some stage into the future will require very widespread consensus and will require a lot of engagement and cooperation. So to be able to put timing around that or indeed wording around that, that would be very pre-emptive at this stage. Just one week on from the referendum, I think the referendum demonstrated that Australians put a premium and a priority on practical action, and that is where work in terms of auditing the expenditure across all areas of indigenous programs is a way to ensure that is focused on practical outcomes and greater effectiveness and efficacy across those programs. Work in terms of undertaking a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse would be a way of focusing on getting more practical steps and outcomes to tackle that terrible, terrible scourge that occurs.


David Speers: Most of the indigenous health and child welfare groups disagree on that. And so does your colleague Bridget Archer. She crossed the floor in relation to this idea of a royal commission, she told the Guardian Peter Dutton appeared to be weaponising child abuse for some perceived political advantage. Is he?


Simon Birmingham: No. Bridget is a dear friend and colleague, and I respect her particularly in relation to child sexual abuse. She brings a very personal understanding of these issues. However, there are clear challenges that exist. The work of the Northern Territory children-


David Speers: There are many communities. I mean her point- Sorry to butt in there. Her point is why just indigenous communities want to look at sex abuse in all communities?


Simon Birmingham: That’s exactly what I was answering and addressing when you butted in. And that is the work of the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner has seen a significant surge in terms of reported instances of abuse or concern, some 30,000 additional reports in terms of concern, around 10% of those in that report identified as being child sexual abuse matters. So there are issues that are sadly on the rise that are particular in terms of remote communities, and that is a tragedy that ought to be pursued and addressed in a thoughtful, calm way and ought to be something that could have the support across the political landscape to be undertaken.


David Speers: Are you talking about a Royal commission into just remote communities or into child sex abuse broadly?


Simon Birmingham: David, again, the terms of reference, something that would be, I imagine, drafted in consultation, ideally with the Northern Territory and preferably with other states. But I think one thing we’ve seen-


David Speers: It could, it could, it could be broader than just remote communities?


Simon Birmingham: I think one thing we’ve seen in terms of royal commissions is that recent ones that have been very, very broad can take a very long time and can become incredibly complex in their undertaking. So, the more focused you can make a royal commission, the more effective I believe its outcomes and approach is likely to be.


David Speers: All right. You’re open to a broader look at not just indigenous communities.


Simon Birmingham: Well, an effective approach in terms of royal commission would be to have the cooperation of states and territories to look at child sexual abuse in indigenous communities and to make sure that it was really focused where the problems were seen as most significant. The evidence in the Northern Territory shows that there has been that spike and that there are real problems to be addressed, and that’s why we ought to do so, but do so in a calm and proper manner.


David Speers: Simon, Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us this morning.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you David. My pleasure.