Topics: Labor UNRWA decision risky and reckless; Palestinian visas cancelled; Chinese foreign minister visit to Australia;

15 March 2024



Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along today. Let me be clear that the Coalition emphatically recognises the enormous humanitarian need that exists in Gaza at present. On October 7th last year, we saw Hamas terrorists undertake the largest killing of Jewish people on a single day since the Holocaust. And since then, Hamas has used Palestinian peoples in Gaza as human shields, inflicting immense suffering on them while continuing to hold hostages against their will, who were taken on October 7th. The need for Hamas to be defeated is clear. The need for humanitarian assistance to flow to people in Gaza is also clear. However, the allegations made against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, that they had employees who participated in the October 7th terrorist attacks are the most grievous of allegations. And they come after longstanding concerns that have been made and raised about the way in which UNRWA operates, and the lack of impartiality that appears to come from UNRWA. The Coalition does not support the decision of the Albanese Government to reinstate funding at this time. Ahead of the conclusion of the review into UNRWA’s staff involvement in the terrorist activities on October 7th, ahead of any clarity about the way in which UNRWA is implicated in any way, through its staff or otherwise, in promoting or inciting terrorism. We do not support the Albanese Government in acting without and ahead of the United States in terms of decisions around this funding.

Ultimately, Australia deciding through means that lack any transparency to reinstate funding, as Penny Wong and the Albanese government has announced, runs the risk that Australian dollars could be misused in the future. No, Australian dollar should ever be made available to any organisation or people who may use it to support, incite or undertake terrorist acts. That’s the clear reality. Australian dollars should be flowing through trusted organisations who can actually get humanitarian assistance and support on the ground. We welcome the fact that the Albanese Government has today, separate from the reinstatement of UNRWA funding, announced additional funding and additional international cooperation by other means to get more assistance to people in Gaza. That’s the type of pathway that should be being pursued, and indeed, UNRWA refunding should and could have been redirected to undertake more of those alternative activities where we can have greater confidence that the organisations are operating with impartiality, focused very much on the humanitarian need. If funding was to be restored, it should have been done at the conclusion of independent analysis and verification works being undertaken by the United Nations. If UNRWA funding from Australia was to be restored, it should be done only in concert with a key partner like the United States, who have the weight and influence to ensure that conditions are applied and verification processes in place, so that we can have confidence about how Australian taxpayer dollars are used. Instead, what we have is a reckless approach and an irresponsible approach by the Albanese Government that does leave the risk there in terms of how Australian taxpayer dollars are used and doesn’t take the type of careful steps in terms of completion of the independent review, use of leverage alongside partners like the United States that could and should have been pursued.


Journalist: Are you comfortable with the assurances that Penny Wong says that she’s received, that there have been extra safeguards put in place to make sure this money doesn’t end up in the wrong place?


Simon Birmingham: We’re not comfortable. There’s been no clarity from Penny Wong about what type of assurances have been received, nor is there any clarity about how those assurances will actually be verified. Are the assurances any different to the assurances that were being given prior to October 7th, when previous concerns were raised? If they’re not, what’s the point of them? Are there extra steps in place to verify those assurances, as a result of them being given? If there’s no extra verification. If there’s no real strong oversight, then what’s the point of that? And the risk is that we’ll see a repeat in terms of the types of mistakes made in the past. Perhaps most critically, how can we believe that Australia, through our contribution, is going to be able to have the leverage and influence around tough enough conditions and strong enough verifications to have them upheld? When a country like the United States, a far bigger contributor, continues to withhold the funding pending completion of the independent review. Penny Wong should be releasing the advice that she’s relied upon, she should be detailing the assurances she’s had, should be making clear what verification measures are in place, and should be outlining why it is that Australia has decided to act outside and out of step with the United States. Where by acting out of step with the US, we are failing to take advantage of the type of leverage that could get more effective outcomes.


Journalist: Senator, the information I’ve been given is that the foreign minister is acting on advice she’s received from Israel and that she’s acted to restore the budget based on that advice?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if that’s true, let her release the advice. I will be very surprised if the Israeli government is encouraging the Australian government to reinstate funding to UNRWA ahead of completion of the UN investigation. Very, very surprised.


Journalist: Possibly a separate matter. I’m also advised that there are several Palestinians in receipt of Australian visas, temporary Australian visas, who I understand to be overseas that have cancelled. Is this is a fair process?


Simon Birmingham: It’s endless chaos when it comes to the Albanese Government’s management of Australia’s borders at present. Its chaos when it comes to how they protect us from illegal boat arrivals. Its chaos when it comes to how they manage detainees released into the community. And its chaos when people coming out of a war zone are given visas to come to Australia and then have them cancelled on the way here. We have been critical all along of the speed with which visas appear to have been given, and questioned whether appropriate security checks could have been undertaken on individuals coming out of Gaza, individuals who are in tragically a community that Hamas has ruled over for a number of years, where Hamas has built significant terrorist sympathisers amongst those communities. And Australia needs to be making sure that we are not importing potential terrorist sympathisers into this country.


Journalist: Chinese foreign minister will be visiting next week to meet with Penny Wong. What do you hope to see from that?


Simon Birmingham: I welcome the fact that Foreign Minister Wang Yi from the People’s Republic of China will be visiting Australia next week. It is far better to see dialogue resumed than the counterproductive cessation of dialogue that China undertook and imposed over recent years. There are many things that need to still be achieved to ensure that China’s unfair and unjustified targeting of Australia comes to an end. We need to see the wine tariffs removed and removed forthwith. We need to see impositions on our beef industry, on our live seafood exports also removed. We need to see China actually live up to both the terms and the spirit of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement that it voluntarily entered into. Australia lives up to our side of the bargain. China needs to live up to theirs. We also need to see China act in ways that show compassion to detained Australian citizen Dr Yang Hengjun, who continues to be detained and faces the most unjust of sentences in China and whose health is a matter of concern and warrants compassionate action. And we need to see the Albanese Government take up very seriously Australia’s concerns about the way Chinese naval operations are undertaken across our region that are destabilising, that are provocative and that have seen a conflict occur in terms of clashes between Chinese boats and those of the Philippines. Indeed, the dangerous actions that we saw putting Australian naval personnel on HMAS Toowoomba in jeopardy, or, of course, the real threats that happened in relation to waterways around Taiwan or even in Japan’s economic zone. There is much to be addressed. There are serious issues to be addressed with China during their foreign minister’s visit. The Albanese Government will need to ensure they take a very serious tone in delivering Australia’s expectations for how we have a stable region and a successful bilateral relationship.