Topics:  Antisemitic phrases; Senate motion;  

16 May 2024



Andy Park:  Senator Simon Birmingham, the Opposition spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, moved the motion and he joins me now. Welcome to you, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Andy, good to be with you again.


Andy Park: You’ve accused the Senator of being antisemitic because of her remarks. She did make it very clear that she was condemning the military actions of Israel. Many would argue that doesn’t make her antisemitic. What’s your view?


Simon Birmingham: Andy, I’ve been careful in terms of the language that I’ve used. What I have targeted is the use by Senator Payman of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which is associated in, in many instances with acts of antisemitism. It is one where it is widely accepted to indicate, as the Prime Minister has said himself, that it is a statement of opposition to a two-state solution.


Andy Park: The Palestinian cause says it’s more about the right to self-determination and denies it’s antisemitic.


Simon Birmingham: Well, the statement on a pretty basic interpretation from the river to the sea, if you look at a map, leaves no space for the State of Israel to exist. And that is what has brought many people, including Anthony Albanese, when pressed to acknowledge that it is a statement that underpins and does not support a two-state solution. It’s a statement against the right of Israel to exist, and it is a statement that is widely associated with acts of intimidation or acts of antisemitism. And now, Anthony Albanese has been clear in response to questions in the past that he said, quote, it can be a very violent statement in terms of what he agreed with. That it’s a slogan that calls for opposition to a two-state solution. And he’s described these types of actions as being divisive. One of his Labor senators used the statement yesterday. And yet today, under repeated questioning, Mr. Albanese has refused to be clear as to whether he’s even spoken to that senator about the use of that phrase.


Andy Park: Notwithstanding the historical point, some academics argue that the controversy around the phrase has been fabricated in the Western world to prevent solidarity with Palestinians. But the Prime Minister has been very clear that he doesn’t think this language used by Senator Payman is appropriate. He said in response that he supports what is appropriate is a two-state solution. The Senate’s now condemned it. Is the matter resolved?


Simon Birmingham: What’s the Prime Minister done about it, though? So, he’s said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate. But she’s a Labor senator. Has he spoken with her? Has he asked her to apologise, to clarify her remarks, to take any action at all? Because when directly asked in question time today what action he’s taken or what engagement he’s had, he couldn’t even mention Senator Payman’s name. He simply obfuscated around the question entirely. So, this is where the Prime Minister does need to step up. He’s been challenged about the use of this statement before. He’s provided clear responses that it’s inappropriate. It’s now being used by a member of the Labor caucus. What is he actually going to do to discourage other members of the Labor caucus from using it in the future, and to make it clear that it is unacceptable and to ask Senator Payman, who I have no doubt has very genuine views and concerns that she holds dearly, but nonetheless, how we express ourselves matters. Her decision to use the phrase is one that is of wide concern to many people in Australia’s Jewish community, as the use of the phrase is of wide concern right around the world.


Andy Park:  Senator Simon Birmingham is my guest on RN Drive. We’re talking about his motion in the Senate today condemning the phrase “from the river to the sea” as antisemitic. You received bipartisan support on your motion today. Your Labor counterpart, Senator Penny Wong, endorsed it. You’ve previously criticised the Albanese Government’s call for a two-state solution. Is it still the Coalition’s position not to support self-determination for Palestinians?


Simon Birmingham: No. It has been the Coalition’s position for decades in support of a negotiated two-state solution. What we have criticised of the Albanese Government is their change from what has been a long-standing, decades long bipartisan position in Australia that a negotiated two-state solution should see the recognition of a State of Palestine following the negotiation of agreed borders of questions around issues about rights of return, of questions around security agreements, all of the very difficult and challenging issues that need to be resolved if there is to be an enduring and peaceful two-state solution. That is absolutely what we want to see. An enduring and peaceful two-state solution. But somehow fast tracking or rushing statements of recognition for a state of Palestine, when there has been no recognition or settlement around agreed borders, rights of return, security arrangements or the like, it puts the cart before the horse and removes the incentives that should be there to get the parties to the negotiating table to deal with those very difficult, long-standing issues.


Andy Park: How widely do you consult with the Jewish community? Because there are many within the Jewish community who themselves support a two-state solution and who have called for an immediate ceasefire? What about their voices? Do they deserve to be heard?


Simon Birmingham: In Australia. Everyone deserves to be heard as long as they present their views in a way that is respectful towards others that doesn’t use language that is antisemitic or Islamophobic or inciteful of any other type of hatred and language that certainly does not provoke or incite acts of conflict. And so certainly my door is open and I take a wide range of meetings, and there are many people on this topic with whom I’ve met who fundamentally disagree with the Coalition’s position. Just as there are many, many people with whom I’ve met who have deep concerns that the Albanese Government’s changing of positions in relation to how a two-state solution should be achieved is of concern. It’s a particular concern because it was a vote and a position that was welcomed by Hamas. And of course, was seen by them and others as progress that has occurred since the horrific acts of October 7th when more Jews were killed on a single day than at any time since the Holocaust. But we all wish to see an end to the bloodshed, the loss of innocent lives, whether they are Israeli lives or Palestinian lives. All of them are precious. All of them are a tragedy. It is how you get to that point in terms of removing terrorists like Hamas and then getting to a two-state solution that can be enduring and peaceful, rather than one that leaves completely unresolved the key issues, such as borders and security arrangements.


Andy Park: You mentioned, Senator, that you support the views of all Australians if they’re communicated peacefully. How do you apply that to the camp outs, the pro-Palestinian camp outs that are currently happening on Australian universities?


Simon Birmingham: Well, that of course, Andy, those individuals and those protesting have a right to protest. Now, how you protest matters. If you’re protesting in ways that provides for any type of intimidation or concern for others going about their business, then that’s inappropriate. And equally, if you are protesting in ways that move from a peaceful protest to one that is a permanent occupation, then that’s not in keeping with the way in which a university should be accessed otherwise. But if people are protesting, calling for ceasefires, if they want to gather and do so in respectful ways that don’t intimidate others, that don’t impede the ability of others to go about their lives on universities or in any other place. That, of course, is their right. But it’s how you do it that matters in all of these circumstances.


Andy Park: Senator Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andy. My pleasure.