Topics: Israel-Hamas conflict; UN General Assembly resolution; EU FTA;
Monday, 30 October 2023
Raf Epstein: The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and part of Peter Dutton’s opposition is Simon Birmingham. He is also Liberal Senator for South Australia. Good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Raf. Good to be with you.
Raf Epstein: I wanted to start actually with one of the protests in Melbourne over the weekend. One of the protesters supporting Palestinians had a sign comparing the Israeli prime minister to Adolf Hitler. The words, the irony of becoming what you hated. It had a few pictures of Bibi Netanyahu’s face morphing into that of Adolf Hitler. What would you say to someone who had that sign?
Simon Birmingham: That the old adage anyone who invokes the Nazis usually loses the argument is a very good one to live by. Look, there were a number of signs that that I saw in some of the images and pictures that were of deep concern and of course, deep, deep concern and hurt to the Jewish community in particular. We shouldn’t lose sight for a second that what happened on October 7th, the largest killing of Jewish people in a single day since the Holocaust, has had deep repercussions throughout that community, and especially anyone who goes and invokes those types of Nazi comparisons or otherwise, is only adding to that hurt, as indeed other provocative signs that incite or suggest violence or the like, or insinuated in different ways, of course, add to real fears in terms of safety and being welcome in Australia, and all should feel welcome in Australia. There is no place for anti-Semitism, nor is there for Islamophobia or any other type of hatred against Australians just because of their race, religion or background.
Raf Epstein: That vote in the UN General Assembly passing a resolution calling for a truce. I call it a ceasefire. It was calling for a truce. It condemned the terror attacks, but didn’t mention Hamas by name. And it called Israelis captives, not hostages. Peter Dutton says it was weak to abstain. A whole lot of other countries abstained. Why is it weak to abstain from that vote?
Simon Birmingham: It’s always preferable to take a stance and a position. And in the end, Israel and the United States and a number of other countries, including some within our near region like Papua New Guinea, took the stance of opposing that resolution. Because in the end, with these resolutions, the way the language is drafted and often what is left out, deliberately left out, is just as important as what is put into the resolution. And in this case, the failure to acknowledge properly the fact of the hostages who are being held to acknowledge properly the fact that it is Hamas, a terrorist organisation who undertook the attacks on October 7th, did mean that this was an unacceptable motion and should have been opposed by Australia.
Raf Epstein: Sure. But the words Peter Dutton used were that Anthony Albanese failed a test of leadership and was weak. So, does that mean that the opposition believes Britain, Germany, Canada, Japan and India failed a test of leadership and were weak?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not going to run commentary on the position of every other country. But from Australia’s perspective, our view is that we should be willing to step up and be counted not in abstention, but in actually taking a position. And if we thought the motion itself was inadequate because it deliberately excluded a number of things that should have been in it, then we should have been willing to vote against it.
Raf Epstein: It does sound like you’re politicising it, though. If France voted yes for that resolution, which they did, but then said, look, it didn’t have everything. If Britain, Germany and India were big, allies of ours can also abstain. Isn’t Peter Dutton just sort of base politics, isn’t it, to call that weak?
Simon Birmingham: No, Raf. It’s making clear that we think Australia should have taken a position rather than an abstention. Now, each leader, each country will be held to account in their own country for the positions they take. It’s our position as the opposition in Australia to have a look and to scrutinise what Australia does. And we have been very consistent in terms of the Coalition position since October 7th in the condemnation of Hamas, in making clear that Israel has that right to self-defence and that right to self-defence includes the right to remove Hamas as a threat to the future of Israel, to remove their capacity or capability to undertake these types of terrorist attacks in the future.
Raf Epstein: I want to come to the failed trade talks with Europe. Just one more question on this conflict. The World Health Organisation says in Gaza it is impossible to evacuate hospitals full of patients without endangering lives. Israel wants them to evacuate the hospitals. WHO says it’s impossible to do that. Do you think the World Health Organisation is correct?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think it is important that Israel exercises as much care and caution as they can in terms of how they conduct this conflict, but they are doing it in a world where Hamas, as we know, also use civilian infrastructure and civilians as human shields and so there are real challenges there-
Raf Epstein: Do you think it’s possible to evacuate those hospitals without endangering their lives?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Raf, again, that’s asking me for an expert opinion about evacuation of hospitals. There are no doubt, many complexities to how you go about evacuating hospitals. But there are also many complexities that Israel faces in terms of trying to disable Hamas, who are known to use hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure as shields and as shelters for their terrorists. That is part of the barbarism and brutality that we see in the way they operate, not only the attacks they launched on Israel, but the way in which Hamas themselves use and abuse the Palestinian people as shields and shelters to try to protect their terrorist infrastructure.
Raf Epstein: If those talks have fallen over with the European Union, those trade talks, does that mean it’s over for the next few years? Is there zilch? Is there no more hope for Australian farmers for the next few years?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m concerned to hear that type of rhetoric from the Government this morning. Of course, they shouldn’t sign on to a bad deal. So insofar as the EU were not offering to open up market access for Australian sheep meat, beef, meat and other produce sufficiently, the Albanese Government is right to say it’s no deal and we will hold our ground. But to suggest that it’s now not going to happen for the next couple of years is disappointing. This is not a time to give up. It’s a time for Prime Minister Albanese to step up with other trade deals. And we did many under the previous Coalition government Japan, South Korea, China, India, United Kingdom regional deals as well with different partner nations. And to get the final hurdle, you often have to get leaders involved. And that means that the Prime Minister should be speaking to the EU Commission President, should be speaking to the leaders of individual European nations to try to get it unstuck and done (inaudible) critical economic reform-
Raf Epstein: Does that mean you’re blaming the government- Are you blaming the government for the breakdown of the talks?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not blaming the Government for the breakdown. As I just said, Raf, the Government should not do a bad deal and they are right to say no deal if it is a bad deal. But to then come out and say we now don’t think it will be done in the life of this Parliament, we don’t see a pathway forward until after the European elections. They should put some urgency behind discussions in the here and now. The Prime Minister, our Prime Minister, should be getting himself involved, not just leaving it to his trade minister or his agriculture minister and trying to unlock the blockage that exists within Europe and often that will take leader to leader conversations. That’s when the UK deal was done. In the end, Scott Morrison had to sit down opposite Boris Johnson and say, if you don’t do X or Y in relation to giving us more market access, higher quotas, lower tariffs, we won’t be able to do this deal. And he nutted it out and we got it over the line and that’s what’s required at this point in time too.
Raf Epstein: Thank you for your time this morning I appreciate it.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Raf. My pleasure.