Topics: Hamas attack on Israel; Senate aviation inquiry;

05:45PM AEST
09 October 2023

Ali Moore: Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. He’s also a member of the Select Committee on Commonwealth Bilateral Air Service Agreements, which will become pertinent in just a couple of minutes because they have released a report today. First of all, though, we’ll talk about Israel. Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Ali. It’s good to be with you.

Ali Moore: Now, we’re actually- you’re actually joining us from Brussels. I imagine what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment is very much of the conversation in Brussels.

Simon Birmingham: Well, it certainly will be, Ali. I got into Brussels last night and today and tomorrow, we’ll be having a series of meetings with the European Commission, members of the European parliament and visiting NATO and meeting their leadership. So, whilst many of those discussions are expected to focus on Ukraine and matters of global geopolitics and security, and I’m sure that will still be the case. Clearly the tragic events unfolding in the Middle East will also now be on the agenda. I know European nations like Australia stand firm in their condemnation of Hamas and their horrific, brutal attacks on Israeli civilians, towns and cities.

Ali Moore: We were just talking to Dr. Bob Barker, who is the former Australian ambassador to Egypt and Syria and Jordan. A couple of the points that he was making is he- this is looking longer term now, but he believes a two state solution is dead, that there will have to be a new political framework. Do you agree with that analysis?

Simon Birmingham: It’s very early to jump to conclusions about what the long-term implications of this will be. Clearly, Israel has announced that they are at war. They are seeking to remove the capacity of Hamas, who Australia recognised under the Coalition government previously as a terrorist organisation, and Israel now seek to remove the capacity of Hamas to be able to govern and operate from Gaza in ways that enable these types of terrorist acts to be undertaken. That can only be a good thing to see Hamas removed from that type of capacity and ability. It has obviously been impossible to make progress towards a two state solution or any other meaningful developments while such a terrorist entity has been governing parts of the Palestinian people. Therefore, having a leadership and a governing structure there that could negotiate, that could discuss is an essential prerequisite for being able to move forward into the future. How that will unfold, we are yet to see. But Israel has the right to defend itself, the right to take action at present and of course has been clear that as part of that action it wants to remove that capacity of the terrorist organisation, Hamas, to be able to govern and operate in the ways that it has been.

Ali Moore: So where do you think Australia’s support should begin and end? And we were hearing just before how Parliament House will be illuminated blue and white tonight. The Prime Minister has said that Israel hasn’t asked for additional humanitarian or military assistance from Australia, where obviously Australian politicians, including yourself, have condemned what’s happened. What else should Australia be doing?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Australia needs to first and foremost be clear and unequivocal in that condemnation, in the support for the right of Israel to take action at present, as we would expect any democratic nation to want to take action in the face of such terrible terrorist attacks upon them. So being clear, unequivocal in those regards is critical. That’s, of course, why there’s been concerns about urges for restraint or otherwise in the first instance. Right now, it’s a case of being unequivocal in support of Israel’s right to take action, right to remove Hamas from its ability to operate terrorist activities or its ability to govern and influence populations and peoples to be motivated to undertake such terrorist activities. Now, beyond those statements of support and that clarity, of course we should consider requests if and when they’re made and do so on a case-by-case basis. But for now, it is a case of Australia, a long-standing friend and ally of Israel being clear, being unequivocal and making sure that we stand not just with Israel, but of course, with a Jewish diaspora population around the world, including significantly in Australia who are feeling very much under target at present. Feeling for people in Israel and their family, friends and relatives, and also feeling a real and genuine fear that this type of action by Hamas could be a provocation that ignites other terrorist acts or sympathies elsewhere around the world. So, we also need to make sure that every step is taken in terms of the protection of those communities and that our own national security agencies are on high alert for any additional chatter or risks or threats that could evolve as a result of these types of escalating situations overseas.

Ali Moore: And of course, also people in Palestine who become or people in the Gaza who become collateral damage.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Israel has already demonstrated in terms of their actions by providing public warnings to women and children and others in areas where they are targeting strikes and to seek to disable Hamas. That they are trying to protect innocent lives there, that they are acting in ways that stand in stark contrast to the horrific images of Hamas who targeted civilians and people going about peaceful daily activities. Anyone who has seen that footage can see the marked contrast in terms of just how horrific the actions of Hamas were and why they are rightly an act of terror and considered an act of war against Israel.

Ali Moore: Simon Birmingham, as I said at the outset, you’re also part of the Senate inquiry which has been looking at the decision to block the extra Qatar Airways flights that was made by the Transport Minister, Catherine King. The inquiry has put out a report it’s made ten recommendations, including for the Government to review that decision. Do you expect I mean- do you expect this inquiry to actually have any impact at all? I note that Catherine King has already put out a statement reiterating that she sees the inquiry as a political stunt.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Catherine King should be willing to review the decision, and the government shouldn’t be stubborn about it. We heard clear evidence from the tourism industry in Australia, from aviation experts and others that this is costing Australia potentially billions of dollars in additional tourism activity and therefore jobs and opportunities for our tourism businesses right across the country. It’s also costing Australian travellers more in terms of less access to flights and less competition and therefore higher prices in the aviation market. So, the Government shouldn’t be stubborn about it. They should review the decision and they should also be transparent about how the decision was made and what drove the decision to be made, because there was enormous evasiveness during this inquiry. That’s why the Coalition will continue as a result of this Senate inquiry report to press for former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, Qantas Government affairs officials and Transport Minister Catherine King to still front up and answer questions about how this decision was made. What influencing occurred and lobbying occurred for it to be made. Because Australian consumers and Australia’s tourism industry are paying the price for the decision.

Ali Moore: Indeed, this goes to one of the recommendations number nine, you actually want the select committee to be extended so that you can hear from Alan Joyce who wasn’t able to give evidence he wasn’t in the country, I think, when you had called him. How long do you see that extension going? This could be an endless thing, couldn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we want to keep this as short and sharp as possible, but we also want to get to the bottom of what happened. It’s Catherine King and the Albanese Government who have been incapable and unable to give clear statements about why they rejected this application for additional flights. But they’ve also been unwilling to give clear answers to questions about the lobbying that took place in the background and what backroom conversations were had leading to the Minister rejecting the advice of her department. This was a clear breakthrough in terms of evidence that occurred. The Commonwealth Department of Transport provided Minister King, Catherine King, with a brief recommending a negotiating mandate be entered into with Qatar. She then sat on that for six months. Along the way, told the Virgin CEO that she expected to approve it and for it to be publicly released. But then it went into the abyss, ultimately to be rejected. So, something caused Catherine King to change her mind. If the Government were upfront and honest, if they got on and reviewed this decision and enabled extra flights by Christmas which would benefit Australian consumers, then this could all go away. But otherwise, we do want to have the committee reconstituted. Mr. Joyce is overseas, as you indicated, on personal matters. We respect that, but as soon as he’s possible and able to be back, we would like to be able to hear from him. But again, the Albanese Government and Catherine King could nip it all in the bud as soon as they wanted by actually just being upfront themselves about what has transpired and what caused Catherine King to reject departmental advice to negotiate these extra flights. What caused her to leave Australians in a situation where we’re paying more for airfares and where it’s harder to get tourists into the country to support our tourism businesses.

Ali Moore: Simon Birmingham, thanks for talking to us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Ali. My pleasure.