Topics: US decisions to Middle East conflict; UNWRA funding; Labor’s broken tax cut promise;

09:25AM AEDT
2 February 2024


Laura Jayes: Let’s go straight to the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for your time, Senator.


Simon Birmingham: Morning, Laura.


Laura Jayes: First of all, we’ve seen Joe Biden in the last hour or so with two significant developments. First of all, retaliatory strikes have been apparently, um, approved by Joe Biden against Iran for that drone strike. But he’s also imposing sanctions on settlers in the West Bank.


Simon Birmingham: Well, LJ, certainly what we’re seeing is consistency there from Joe Biden in relation to addressing the threat of terrorism, the threat posed by Iran and the many different operatives, tragically, that Iran sponsors, be that the sponsorship of Hamas, who, of course, were the instigators of the October 7th terrorist attacks, their sponsorship of Hezbollah, their sponsorship of the Houthi rebels who are causing such disruption in the Red Sea. So, a range of different areas in which the type of actions of Iran, the need to see those who promote extremism, terrorism and those who support them are to be tackled and tackled head on. Because it’s also important to make sure that we are consistent, that we have expectations of all of our partners, our allies and friends. And those expectations include upholding rule of law. That is an important thing for the way in which Israel operates in relation to the West Bank and that is a factor that Joe Biden is obviously looking at in relation to those decisions that he’s pursuing there.


Laura Jayes: Is that something that you would support? Essentially, it’s a signal from the United States that essentially Israel’s biggest ally is not going to tolerate that kind of retaliatory violence in the West Bank.


Simon Birmingham: Well, we should all have expectations in relation to seeing the rule of law upheld amongst our democratic partners, allies and friends. We have a long-standing bipartisan position in Australia of wishing to see a negotiated settlement, two state settlement, to the issues between Israelis and Palestinian peoples. Now, whether it is ultimately a two-state solution or some other negotiated settlement, these matters are ultimately to be subject of negotiation. But there should be a rule of law applied and applied equally to all in relation to how people’s rights and liberties are protected, and ensuring that is something we expect consistently of anybody.


Laura Jayes: Is a two-state solution really viable at this point?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think we have to recognise there are many steps to be undertaken before we could see that as a viable outcome. And it may be that other viable outcomes can be contemplated or negotiated. Now, the fundamental thing that needs to be achieved first and foremost is security. It is not going to be viable to see any of the steps taken if Israel continues to live with the threat of terrorist attacks like those Hamas undertook on October 7th. And that’s why it is important that we retain the resolve to see Hamas disabled and removed from a position of power and influence, to create the type of security environment in which then other aspirations can be achieved. The aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians alike are to live peacefully and to have legitimate aspirations in terms of those of peaceful coexistence.


Laura Jayes: It sounds like we’re a long way away from that peaceful coexistence at the moment. I want to focus on Gaza now and UNWRA. This is the body that countries like Australia and the United States, the UK, just to name a few, has decided to pause funding for. This is after it was found that about 13 of its 13,000 employees were perhaps directly involved in those October 7th attacks. But what it has meant is that it might be limiting further aid getting into Gaza. How do you navigate that one?


Simon Birmingham: Concerns about UNWRA have existed for quite some time. Indeed, they’ve been expressed prior to the October 7th attacks in relation to whether UNWRA employees have promoted extremist ideologies that have fostered the type of environment that saw Hamas rise and the type of terrorist attacks undertaken. And of course, concerns were raised with the Albanese government late last year, even as they were increasing funding to UNWRA about whether employees had been directly involved in those October 7th terrorist attacks. So, these are incredibly serious matters. Now, there is no denying that there is huge human suffering and need for innocent civilians to get humanitarian assistance and support in Gaza, but not a dollar of Australian taxpayers’ money should be filtering through an organisation where it could be not getting to those who need it, but instead be landing in the hands of those who are promoting extremism and undertaking terrorist attacks. So, ideally you would see funding delivered through other means, other agencies, be it international organisations like the Red Cross, UNICEF or others. Or finding alternate structures that the UN should consider and put in place as a replacement to UNWRA to ensure that all donor countries can have confidence support gets there. As a country, as Australia, we shouldn’t be acting in ways that are contrary at all to other significant partners, especially those like the United States. I would expect that any resumption of funding would be consistent with the types of approach of the US and other key partners and would have absolute rock-solid safeguards in place. So, every Australian can know their taxpayer dollars are going to those who need and deserve it, not potentially being filtered off to the promotion of extremism or terrorism.


Laura Jayes: You say that we should act with our allies. That’s exactly what Penny Wong did, didn’t she? Because as soon as, um, Israel handed this dossier, apparently to the United States, Israel paused funding Australia. Sorry. The United States paused funding to UNWRA, Australia quickly followed, in fact, well before the UK. So do you think Penny Wong has done what you said is right moving with our allies? Or should she have acted in December when she was warned by these Jewish groups?


Simon Birmingham: I think the December warnings are very, very serious. And the fact that not only was existing funding continuing, but additional funding was given means there are questions to be answered about how the government treated those warnings from Australia’s Jewish community-


Laura Jayes: The US did the same, didn’t it?


Simon Birmingham: – raised these concerns. And whether those warnings were taken effectively and seriously, whether we were raising them with partners like the US at the time and discussing how those things would be addressed and considered. So, I think there are definitely questions to be answered there about whether steps could and should have been taken earlier when the US did act, and then Canada reacted and I called for Australia to suspend its funding. And I’m pleased that we did do so in concert with the partners there. I hear talk about resumptions of funding. That’s where I see very clearly that we should not be resuming unless it is clearly in concert with those international partners and together having rock solid safeguards in place to make sure that those dollars are going to the people who deserve them, not the people who will abuse them.


Laura Jayes: Let’s talk tax quickly. Sussan Ley says the state premiers probably can’t spell RBA, can you?


Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, yes. But look, I mean, it is rather, pathetic and ridiculous to see some of the lecturing of the RBA coming from state premiers. The RBA rightly has independence.


Laura Jayes: It’s a statement of the obvious.


Simon Birmingham: It is completely preposterous to see these Labor premiers grandstanding in the way they are wanting to try to pick a fight with the independent RBA. If the premiers want to pick a fight anywhere, they should pick it with the federal government over whether or not they could be doing more, and to help get the RBA in terms of them not having to apply higher interest rates for longer. Last year’s budget was pretty clear in terms of seeing many expert commentators and economists come out saying that it was a budget that would see interest rates run higher for longer because of increased Labor spending. So, if they’ve got a beef bone to pick with anybody, they should be picking it with Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers.


Laura Jayes: The inflation has come down significantly low in December. So, the picture may have changed a fair bit. But let me ask you about Labor’s tax cuts. Are you really going to stand in the Senate and vote against these tax cuts and stand between 11 million, 13 million Australians and a more significant tax cut?


Simon Birmingham: Well, LJ. We don’t want to make it easy for Anthony Albanese to be breaking his promise, particularly a promise he gave on more than 100 occasions. So, we’ll work through what our position is. The only reason the country is talking about tax cuts is because the Liberal and National parties legislated three stages of tax cuts, delivered them for low- and middle-income earners, and then had a big piece of tax reform. That was the third stage that eliminated bracket creep for most Australians. And tragically, Labor is now junking tax reform in favour of doing a bit of rejigging and a big tax grab in which they’re going to take $28 billion extra from 4 million Australians over the years to come. So ultimately, there are problems, significant problems with what Labor’s proposing. But we will always be the party of lower taxes, and we want to make sure that every Australian gets the chance to pay as little tax as possible whilst delivering the services provided, and they can trust us when we go to the next election and whatever promises we can take to the next election, and policies for lower taxes are ones that will be credible compared with the Labor Party, who clearly cannot be trusted with a single word they say on tax.


Laura Jayes: All right. Well, looking forward to the debates as they have already resumed. But I think they’ll resume proper when Parliament returns. We’ll see you then.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.