Topics: Illegal boat arrivals; Israel-Hamas conflict; Parliament House conduct; 

07:45AM AEDT
19 February 2024



Sally Sara: Well, as we’ve heard, the Opposition has seized on the arrival of asylum seekers in WA as evidence that the federal government is weak on border protection. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and he joins me now. Senator, welcome back to the program.


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


Sally Sara: Do you agree with Peter Dutton’s comments about the Prime Minister being weak on border protection?


Simon Birmingham: Well, yes in the sense that there are real concerns. If you look at what we have examined through Senate Estimates, processes and budget scrutiny, there’s evidence that there’s some $600 million that the Albanese Government has cut out of border security measures. When scrutinised about these things, the commissioner of the Australian Border Force has admitted that these cuts would see his resources and activities stretched in terms of their operations, and the Department of Home Affairs has conceded that there have been reductions in terms of aspects of maritime surveillance. So, all of these things do show a weakness in the Albanese Government. They do raise cause for concern and with these arrivals having not just been intercepted at sea but having reached the Australian mainland without being detected at sea and without being detected when they arrived on the mainland. Aside from, of course, local communities, that does show a real failure that deserves absolute scrutiny and accountability.


Sally Sara: But would you use the same language, weak?


Simon Birmingham: As I said, I think it does show a weakness in the Albanese Government. That they have made these sorts of cuts in their budget, the sorts of decisions that have created an environment where people smugglers have been able to get a ship all the way through to the Australian mainland. And if we then look at the types of things that would likely be provoking this, the gross mishandling of the NZYQ case, which the government has leapt from one position to another, often times following the policy suggestions and ideas of Peter Dutton and the Opposition, when they don’t appear to have had any plans in place themselves. None of these types of activities can do anything but create a perception of weakness or vulnerability that, sadly, appears to have been exploited.


Sally Sara: In the NZYQ case. Is it correct that Peter Dutton actually allowed the plaintiff in this case to reapply for a visa after being convicted of raping a ten-year-old child?


Simon Birmingham: Sally, I don’t know in terms of the legal processes there as to what rights might have been enabled in terms of an individual who may well have had full legal right under Australian law to make application. What I do know is that these individuals are all of them were detained, detained for a long time, and that when the High Court overturned a 20-year standing precedent, the Albanese Government was caught terribly flat footed. Measures such as the preventative detention regime were called for by the Coalition after the High Court not prepared and acted on by the Albanese Government until weeks and weeks later. And, of course, in last week’s Senate Estimates, it was revealed that even with that legislation having been put through the Senate last year and the parliament last year, the Albanese Government has not used it in one instance in terms of submitting an application for those preventative detention orders to be put in place.


Sally Sara: Let’s look at the current situation. We’ve had this intervention from the Operation Sovereign Borders commander, saying that any alternative narrative will be exploited by criminal people smugglers when the opposition calls the government weak. Is there a danger that it in itself will encourage people smugglers to try?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it is our responsibility to hold the government to account. And if there are cuts to the Border Force budget, if there are reductions in terms of any aspects of maritime surveillance, if the Border Force commissioner is saying that his resources are being stretched, then these are fair things for us to absolutely call the government out on, and particularly when a government does need to be accountable for what is clearly a failure when a boat, as I said before, it wasn’t like this was just a failure to intercept it some distance out at sea. This was a failure to intercept it at all, either at sea or when it reached the mainland.


Sally Sara: But these incidents have happened under both governments. Is there more a more responsible way to call the government to account but not pave the way, open for headlines of the Australian government being weak on border security, which may be headlines in other parts of the world where people smugglers are active?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we don’t get to write the headlines, but what we do have a responsibility to do is to hold the government to account for where we see policy failures and policy failures and policy weakness. In this instance, we are seeing that in terms of the decisions the government’s made, some of which I’ve taken you through in terms of those budget and other decisions.


Sally Sara: Simon Birmingham, let’s move on to the situation in Gaza. There are around 1.4 million Palestinians in Rafah, in the south of Gaza. The Albanese Government, along with the prime ministers of New Zealand and Canada, have called on Israel not to go ahead with a ground invasion. Do you support that position?


Simon Birmingham: We continue to support Israel in their right to seek to disable Hamas. Clearly, in terms of how they undertake that in the Rafah region, comes with significantly added complexities given the immense dislocation and relocation of individuals that have occurred there, and obviously significant care needs to be undertaken in any actions, military actions that do occur within that region. But let’s also remember that at the start of last week, we learnt of the rescue of two of the Israeli hostages that Hamas has been holding all the time since October 7th, and those hostages were rescued from the Rafah region in southern Gaza. So, I must themselves tragically, shamefully, have demonstrated that they clearly relocated hostages to again hide them amongst immense civilian populations. And once again, Hamas, they’re using Palestinian civilians as human shields. So, it is clear from their behaviour and actions that there remains a serious task to be done to see Hamas disabled, to see hostages rescued. But of course, any actions with such a huge condensed location of civilian populations need Israel to act with due care and to act with due regard to international humanitarian law.


Sally Sara: So, do you believe the operation should go ahead?


Simon Birmingham: Sally, I’m not going to try to prejudge a particular military operation of which I have no knowledge of the details of them.


Sally Sara: Do you support it?


Simon Birmingham: What I have described is the way in which Israel should consider this an approach to this, which is we continue to support their right to disable Hamas. It is clear from the hostage situation that Hamas is sheltering and potentially hiding more hostages. That certainly has its operative sheltering in the Rafah region. But how Israel goes about targeting that, clearly with such immense condensed populations requires them to exercise due care. And we have from day one said they should act particularly with regard to international humanitarian law, whilst supporting them to remove those who undertook the atrocities of October 7th. It is the case that there can be no place for Hamas in the future governance of Gaza, and that the best way to a cease fire would be for Hamas to release the remaining 100 or so hostages, who they’ve been holding since October 7th, for them to lay down their arms and surrender and to give up the enormous military infrastructure they have of tunnel networks scattered across Gaza, underneath hospitals and schools that are estimated to be bigger than the New York subway system in size, scale and complexity.


Sally Sara: Simon Birmingham, your colleague, former prime minister Scott Morrison, addressed a rally on the weekend and suggested that the United Nations is anti-Semitic. Do you share that view?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think sadly, tragically, we have seen, of course, in the instance of UNRWA, the identification of individuals who were involved in the October 7th attacks, more who appear to have supported those attacks, and a longer history of questions being asked about the way in which that organisation that UN body has operated in, in its teaching and its practices that it supported, which appears to have led to extremist views and clearly anti-Semitic views within that.


Sally Sara: So, you think he’s right?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think there are cases there in terms of that UN organisation elsewhere, the UN is subject to the votes and wishes of its member states. Sadly, all too often we do see a majority of those member states, often autocracies, dictatorships and other countries with little to have values in common with Australia who take very anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions. We need to be ever vigilant in seeking to push back against that in our society in Australia, where we’ve seen the rise in anti-Semitism all too much, and in international fora and institutions against those countries who would seek to advance those views in those international institutions.


Sally Sara: Simon Birmingham, just one final question. Last week, your Coalition colleague Perin Davey admitted to have drunk some alcohol before appearing at Senate Estimates. Is that appropriate in your view?


Simon Birmingham: Well, every member of Parliament is responsible for themselves and to make sure that they can conduct themselves in the best possible way at all times. I know Perin works very hard in advocating for her communities in New South Wales. There are many different functions, events and otherwise hosted in the Parliament, but everybody needs to make sure that in attending those functions and events and then going back into parliamentary duties, they are mindful of being at their best performance and capacity as to how they conduct themselves.


Sally Sara: Was it a good look?


Simon Birmingham: Look, I haven’t actually seen the footage or anything else, Sally, so I don’t know in that regard. I was busy in my own Senate Estimates hearings.


Sally Sara: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.