Topics: ICC warrant application; support for Ukraine; skilled migration; energy infrastructure investment.

07:35AM AEST
22 May 2024



Patricia Karvelas: There’s been an outcry from the Coalition over a decision from prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to seek arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. US President Joe Biden immediately came out accusing the prosecutors of equivalence between Israel and Hamas and, for its part, Israel has called on countries to boycott any arrest warrant should the prosecutors’ request be approved by the court itself. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and he joins me this morning. Senator, welcome back to the programme.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Patricia. Good to be with you.


Patricia Karvelas: Is the prosecutors’ request antisemitic, as Peter Dutton says?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, I think you do have to ask the question as to why did the prosecution of Hamas officials for what occurred on October 7, the deliberate murders, rapes and kidnapping of innocent civilians… why did it wait until the ICC was in a position it thought to be able to simultaneously release action against Israeli officials at the same time? The case is clear in terms of what Hamas did on October 7 – their deliberate, targeted murdering of Jews, which they have repeated their desire to do again and again in the future as part of their desire to eliminate the Israeli state. So the reason why there is such a strong reaction from Peter Dutton but equally from US President Joe Biden, from the governments not only of the United States but also of the United Kingdom, of Germany, of Italy, of Austria, of the Czech Republic, in all of these cases, we have governments expressing real concern, because there is a sense, as the German Foreign Ministry said, that the simultaneous application for arrest warrants creates the false impression of equivalence and we utterly, utterly reject there being any sense of equivalence between Hamas and the State of Israel.


Patricia Karvelas: Peter Dutton said Australia should be standing, and I quote, ‘shoulder to shoulder with President Biden’. President Biden late last year also warned Israel it was losing support internationally because of its indiscriminate bombing. Is there indiscriminate bombing? Do you stand shoulder to shoulder with him on that?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the expectation that Israel exercises care in how it conducts its operations to remove Hamas from this position of being a terrorist threat against it, and so how Israel conducts those operations does matter. But Israel has allowed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of humanitarian aid in, which, on analysis of some experts around the world, much of that has been seized by Hamas, sold through the black market, used for profiteering purposes. So we do see that Israel conducts itself in terms of targeting its military operations, trying to provide humanitarian support and with the objective of simply securing–


Patricia Karvelas: Are you… are you saying that Israel has targeted just military targets in this campaign? I mean, there are so many civilians dead.


Simon Birmingham: There are civilians dead and each innocent life lost is a tragedy, be they an Israeli life, a Palestinian life or anybody in in this conflict – just as in any conflict, innocent lives being lost is a tragedy – but we do have to recognise that the objectives are profoundly different between the two parties. No country could live, and no democracy would allow its government to stand blindly aside and live, with a terrorist threat like Hamas sitting on its doorstep. Israel has every right, after seeing more Jews killed on a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, to defend itself and to take action to see Hamas removed as a terrorist threat. Now, obviously, there is much and intense scrutiny there. How Israel conducts those operations matters. We have seen tragic instances, such as the death of humanitarian workers, which should not have occurred.  But Israel also has processes to investigate those and, again, this is where there are legitimate questions about the jurisdiction of the ICC, which was established to investigate matters where there are not processes within states to undertake appropriate investigation. Israel has its own legal system, an independent and, by many descriptions, activist judiciary – that stands in stark contrast, again to Hamas, where nobody is ever held to account for any of their barbaric actions.


Patricia Karvelas: Now, Israel has called on countries to boycott any arrest warrant. Do you think Australia should be boycotting any arrest warrant?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, we’re not to the stage of the court approving it, as I understand it – I would be…


Patricia Karvelas: That’s right but I’m asking… looking forward, if it does approve these arrest warrants, should Australia really be boycotting and resisting the court’s order?


Simon Birmingham: I would be deeply troubled if Australia were in a position of arresting the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel. I think that would send a terrible signal, given the way in which the court has issued these proceedings, and the actions of the Prosecutor in creating this impression of a false equivalence between Israel and Hamas.


Patricia Karvelas: But you keep saying, if I can interrupt, ‘impression’ and I think that’s a key word there – that’s the impression you have. They deny that equivalence.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, they may deny it but they have created it, by issuing all of these proceedings simultaneously, by doing nothing about Hamas in the days, weeks or couple or months immediately after October 7, but waiting until they could launch these actions simultaneously. What is the justification for that? Why is it, if we look separately, that the ICC, seven years after the systematic clearance of Rohingya people in Myanmar, has taken no action against individuals or issued no warrants in relation to that, nor in the three years after the brutal military takeover in Myanmar? So you look at the inconsistencies here – they are tragically mounting.


Patricia Karvelas: The Australian Government has said it respects international law. Do you respect international law?


Simon Birmingham: Well, on the way these proceedings are being launched, the impression, as I’ve said, that they create and the lack of action elsewhere, you can see many people who are going to struggle to respect the way the ICC is conducting itself in these matters. And Mr Albanese’s wilful inconsistency in relation to his actions… our Prime Minister yesterday stood at a press conference and said he wouldn’t comment on a matter before the courts, or a matter before international courts, in the very same press conference where he commented on Julian Assange’s case before British courts. It was clearly, wilfully inconsistent on the part of the Prime Minister. There’s no basis on which for him not to have a position on the very questions that you are asking me and I’m not–


Patricia Karvelas: Well, the Government has released a statement. There clearly is a position, which is to support international law – that doesn’t determine the Government’s view on whether Benjamin Netanyahu is… is responsible for war crimes but the process itself.


Simon Birmingham: So, as I said, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade belatedly released a statement, the Prime Minister…


Patricia Karvelas: Which speaks for the Government, right?


Simon Birmingham: …the Prime Minister… the Prime Minister of this country was asked a question and he completely dodged and squibbed it. He, rather than giving any of those types of remarks, said he wouldn’t comment on a matter before the courts, in the very same press conference as he was talking about a matter before the British courts. Now, you’ve asked me some difficult questions this morning. Will the Prime Minister answer those difficult questions or will he keep handballing them to unelected officials instead?


Patricia Karvelas: I want to move to another issue, if we can, Simon Birmingham: Ukraine. There are reports the German Government is ready to support a US plan to use frozen Russian assets, which are mostly, I understand, stuck in Europe, to support a $50 billion aid package for the war-torn country, which is a really interesting thing to do. Is this a signal the West is running out of its own assets to help Ukraine?


Simon Birmingham: I think this, firstly, is a very important breakthrough. Russia has hundreds of billions of dollars of assets that have been essentially frozen, as part of the sanctions that countries have put in place since their invasion of Ukraine, and to be able to use those assets, or the profits from those assets, could be a profound change in providing certain, ongoing and significant support for Ukraine to be able to get the financial support and assistance it needs to continue to fight against Russia. And I would urge countries to go as far as they possibly can in the utilisation of these assets to support Ukraine, and particularly urge the Albanese Government to indicate to G7 nations debating this, their very strong support for this type of action.


Patricia Karvelas: Just a couple of other issues that are certainly on the agenda, post budget and post budget-in-reply, employers are concerned over your party’s plans to slash migration, saying they need workers to avoid deeper skills shortages and they’re pretty concerned. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Andrew McKellar said it would have to have a very material impact across a range of areas where we have still very severe skill shortages. Can you guarantee that skills shortages won’t be made worse by your policy?


Simon Birmingham: We’ve been very clear that, in the targeted reductions we would make to migration, there would be real priority given to ensuring that skills, necessary skills, particularly in areas such as the construction sector, would remain at the top of the list and have the support to make sure that the skills we need, to address the housing crisis we have, would be coming into the country, whilst making sure that we didn’t have a situation where the demand for that housing was made worse by continuing to have such high rates of migration as the current Government has facilitated.


Patricia Karvelas: But if you want to reduce that intake by a hundred thousand (100,000), it’s inevitably going to hit some of those skilled workers, isn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this will be about having the courage and capacity to effectively target in those programmes, and that’s why making sure that those construction workers, especially people critical to the housing sector, and then working carefully with industry through other priorities, and ensuring that they are effective targets that are met and put in place, so that we do get the skills that are necessary, but don’t have a programme that is so large, so lacking in terms of its targeting, that you just end up adding to the problem rather than effectively addressing the problem.


Patricia Karvelas: And, when you get to the detail and you… and you find that you can’t actually cut that many people coming into the country without ultimately affecting skills, will you revise the figure?


Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I’m confident, and we’re confident, that a number of 140,000 people in the permanent programme in the first two years is still a very significant number, which will then, as we get on top of these issues, increase to 150,000 in year three, and 160,000 people in year four, that these are significant numbers, and that you can manage to target effectively the skills you need when you’re saying you’ll take 140,000 people in a year.


Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, the CSIRO has released modelling. They say building a large-scale nuclear power plant in Australia would cost at least $8.5 billion, it would take 15 years to deliver and produce electricity at roughly twice the cost of renewable sources. Why would you pursue something so expensive?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, because the International Energy Agency, the OECD, the United States Department of Energy, MIT University, many others, all say that the least-cost option for low-carbon electricity includes nuclear as part of a balanced mix of technology. A–


Patricia Karvelas: But so is the CSIRO wrong?


Simon Birmingham: Ah, well, the CSIRO and this report, I believe, and we’ve only just got the release of it, so the Government’s got it; we haven’t been able to go through it in any type of detail, so it will take a little time to go through the findings but the author, I believe, has been clear that this is a report not about the end consumer point and how it relates to energy customers, families et cetera across Australia. We’ll be working through our policy, looking at this but also looking at the international evidence from the International Energy Agency, the OECD and others, which are pretty clear about the role of nuclear in achieving net zero and doing so whilst keeping stability and low cost in your energy grid,XS and we want to make sure that we present a comprehensive policy, there, that doesn’t just look at one part of the energy sector, namely generation, but also includes all of the things that go into the prices households and businesses pay, namely transmission, and of course you’ve got to look at how that impacts when you’ve got tens of billions of dollars being lined up to be spent on new transmission infrastructure across the country, some of which, much of which, potentially could be avoided by looking at a different generation mix.

Patricia Karvelas: Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia, my pleasure.


Patricia Karvelas: Shadow Foreign Minister Simon Birmingham.