Topics: Israel conflict; Rafah border crossing; Voice referendum;

07:45AM AEDT

17 October 2023

Patricia Karvelas: Scenes out of Israel and Palestine have been devastating. Thousands of lives lost. Tens of thousands more injured. People displaced. People under threat. People grieving. There are growing calls from the West for Israel to show restraint as Gaza quickly runs out of water, faces a devastating humanitarian crisis, and Israel prepares for a possible ground invasion. Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He’s my guest this morning. Simon Birmingham, welcome.

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

Patricia Karvelas: Britain’s Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, has urged Israel to show restraint in any military action against Hamas to minimise harm to civilians, similar to what we’re hearing from Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. Do you agree?

Simon Birmingham: Well, certainly we would hope that Israel has regard for civilian life. I think it’s important to note that Israel has shown regard for civilian life to date, that Israel has provided warnings in relation to regions being targeted by airstrikes. It has provided those warnings in advance so that people can move and evacuate. It has provided notice in relation to intended ground movements, and indeed it has deferred and delayed those intended ground movements. That is in stark, stark contrast to the complete disregard for civilian life and, in fact, targeting of civilian life that Hamas demonstrated a little over a week ago when it targeted women, children, babies, young people at a music festival, grandparents, and of course, took a number of them hostage and still holds, it claims, a number of those hostages. So we have to be very clear that there are distinct differences in terms of the way in which the parties operate. Those who seek to create some type of false equivalence are engaging in disgraceful behaviour. Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It has behaved as such and its cruelty, the abomination of its actions, is something that has rightly been condemned by our Parliament and other democratic nations right around the world, and many others quite rightly.

Patricia Karvelas: So you think that Israel should show restraint?

Simon Birmingham: I think Israel should, as they have, have regard and due regard for civilian life. Israel has-

Patricia Karvelas: I don’t want to- I don’t want to play word games. But I keep asking if you think they should show restraint. You’re using a different form of language. Is that because the opposition leader says they should show no restraint?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the opposition has backed very clearly the fact that Israel has a right to defend itself, but also that it should show regard for civilian life. We acknowledge that it has shown regard for civilian life. That is a significant contrast to Hamas. So, we’ve been clear here. I think some of the initial debates around the word restraint that were occurring around a week ago now were about interpretations as to whether that meant Israel had a full right to indeed engage in military action. Of course, Israel has always had a right to engage in-.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you accept though, that the government has always said that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, I think we have- and you say you don’t want to play word games, but it seems as if you’re wanting to focus in very much on-

Patricia Karvelas: How can I not? It was a distinctive note, but it was a distinctive feature of Question Time yesterday of Peter Dutton’s approach. It is, you know, not just my analysis. It is very clear. And so I’m trying to figure out, is there a bipartisan position here or are you taking a different position?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the bipartisan position was passed by the Australian Parliament yesterday, which was about having regard for civilian lives. That is what the bipartisan position in the motion passed through the House of Representatives yesterday was in the motion before the Senate yesterday. That is what was negotiated between the government and opposition. That is what Israel has demonstrated far, far greater regard for civilian lives as distinct from the targeting of civilian lives by Hamas. We should not lose sight of that very distinct difference between the parties here.

Patricia Karvelas: In some breaking news, the deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, has now revealed that there are about 45 Australians believed to be in Gaza. I think previously we understood that there was 19 Australians, so 45 is clearly much higher. The government says it’s going to be difficult. They’re looking at ways and working very hard to find ways they can get these people to safety. How concerned are you for these Australians?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it is a great concern in relation to two Australians, and we would wish to see the Rafah border crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt opened and opened in a way that enables those foreign citizens, including Australian citizens, to be able to safely leave and also to see humanitarian assistance get into Gaza. Now, there are international efforts from a range of countries being undertaken there, and we fully support Australia’s engagement with Middle East nations, along with that of the United States and all others, to try to negotiate progress there. One of the things that may help to achieve progress, in terms of the different parties to discussions, would be if Hamas released the hostages that it continues to hold. We shouldn’t forget that those Hamas claims to still have hostages. There were around 150 claimed to be held. Of course, some of those may tragically be dead now, but those hostages should be released and that would be the type of gesture and step that may help to progress discussions. And of course, it is the very least that Hamas, who claims to be the government and representative of the people of Gaza. Now it is no effective representative of the people of Gaza, but it claims to be and the least it could do is to release those hostages as perhaps a step to help, to get outcomes that could open that border crossing and secure the flow of aid, humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and enable those Australians and other foreign nationals to exit safely.

Patricia Karvelas: Just before I let you go, Simon Birmingham, you were overseas during the last period of the Voice referendum and now you’re back. I want to ask you what you make of the result, particularly as a leading moderate, which is, you know, a description that I don’t think you’ve ever contested but, in the Coalition, in the Liberal Party. What do you make of the results, particularly in those once Liberal seats, those teal seats that voted yes?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think the result overall, with some 61% of Australians voting no, is a very clear and emphatic result. Just by way of comparison, at the last federal election, only 32% of Australians gave a first preference vote to the Liberal Party. Yet in this referendum, 61% of Australians voted no. So the outcome is far, far bigger and more decisive than any one party or its position that it took. Equally, the outcome, I think, should not be read greatly into electoral contests across the country. In no way do I think all of those 61% are about to vote for the Liberal Party. Clearly, we will have to present our policies, our plans for the future, in a positive light at the next election, to be able to secure even just a fraction of those votes to achieve a potential change of government.

Patricia Karvelas: That’s right.

Simon Birmingham: But yes, there are then seat by seat propositions to be looked at carefully and to be understood. And there will be time over the coming weeks, months and 18 months leading up to the next election to look carefully at what type of policies and positions are put across the country from a party perspective, to be able to secure a change of government, and of course, to send a strong contrast to-

Patricia Karvelas: But does it demonstrate, though, that it will be hard for your messages to resonate in those seats that you wanted to recapture?

Simon Birmingham: No seat that you lose is ever hard to win back, and historically, it is even harder to win seats back from independents.

Patricia Karvelas: Does this make it harder?

Simon Birmingham: So, it was already very hard-

Patricia Karvelas: But does it make it harder on this key issue?

Simon Birmingham: I don’t know that this in particular makes it harder. It was already harder because historically the evidence is there that it is harder to win seats back from independents than it is to win them back from major parties. This creates, indeed, a further analysis for the party to have to look at carefully in terms of messaging into those key seats and the types of positions that we take in relation to those seats. But we have to respect and well and truly recognise there was a huge national vote, and the government made catastrophic failures in the way in which it went about putting this to the Australian people. Fatal mistakes in terms of not detailing its model, not compromising when concerns were raised about the scope of the proposed constitutional questions, not choosing to separate the questions of recognition and Voice. All of those different decisions of the Albanese government contributed to a situation that saw this enormous failure.

Patricia Karvelas: We are out of time. Thank you so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Patricia. My pleasure.