Topics: UNRWA funding; Prime Minister should visit Israel; US funding for Ukraine;

11:20AM AEDT
12 March 2024



Kieran Gilbert:  Now the Prime Minister is facing growing pressure to restore funding to the UN relief agency UNRWA, as a quarter of Gaza’s population is estimated to be facing starvation. Anthony Albanese says his government is looking at the range of support that can be given in terms of essential food and other items, including through other means. I spoke to the Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, a short time ago about the prospect of a return of UNRWA funding from Australia.


Simon Birmingham: Well, Kieran, we clearly do see a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and we recognise the immense need that so many individuals have. But we also recognise that the allegations against UNRWA are serious. The concerns about the way it operates are long standing. So, first and foremost, the Albanese Government should be and should have been looking at alternative vehicles to provide support to the Palestinian people in Gaza in need, to make sure that Australian dollars in no way support extremist activities or terrorist activities, but do support the provision of basic food, of basic medicines, of essential supplies and housing supports and the like. Those types of alternatives can and should be looking at other aid organisations that can be supported, as well as now looking at how Australia might partner with the United States in President Biden’s push for supplies to come in via a temporary port facility out of Cyprus, and the opportunities there to really step up the supply of humanitarian support, but do so in a way with absolute confidence about the type of equipment and materials entering Gaza so that none of it could be supporting Hamas or their operatives at all.


Kieran Gilbert: Isn’t the fundamental problem here that UNRWA is the organisation best equipped? I know you mentioned the aid agencies, but quite frankly, they don’t have the same sort of access to the civilian population that UNRWA has done over many years. If they can reassure themselves that any links to Hamas have been removed, isn’t that the best course of action to refund that UN agency?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, if they look at UNRWA and ultimately make a decision that funding through UNRWA can and should be reinstated, there are really both short and medium to longer term issues that need to be addressed. In the short term Australia should only be providing any money back through UNRWA if it is done with very stringent conditions and clear tests to be able to authenticate and verify that those conditions are being met.


Kieran Gilbert: There have been calls for the Prime Minister to visit Israel and the areas affected by the October 7th attack, led by Josh Frydenberg, who was there last week. Does this really amount to much, though? What sort of impact would a visit by Anthony Albanese have at the latter stage of this terrible conflict?


Simon Birmingham: I think these are important reflections. The kibbutz that Josh visited is the same that I visited. It is a very moving and indeed a quite impactful place to visit, given it was scene of such horrors on October 7th. Whilst we are right to reflect and try to address the humanitarian needs in Gaza at present, none of that should be done in a context without also reflecting on what started this current conflict. There was no conflict in Gaza on October 6th, but on October 7th, Hamas launched the most brutal of attacks and killed more Jewish people on a single day than at any time since the Holocaust. If Anthony Albanese is able to add to any of his existing overseas commitments, a visit to Israel to visit those sites that Penny Wong did not visit, such as the kibbutz, such as Sderot and parts of Israel that were the scene of those attacks. As well as, of course, rightly meeting with those seeking to try to achieve peaceful outcomes in the Palestinian territories. Then that can help to demonstrate Australia’s support for Israel, support for ultimately a long-term settlement that achieves peaceful outcomes for Israelis and Palestinian peoples alike. But I think for Australia’s Jewish communities as well, who have been the subject of such an unfair and unacceptable rise in antisemitism, to see the Prime Minister take that step of solidarity with Israel in recognition of what occurred on October 7th, would be long overdue, but very welcome.


Kieran Gilbert: Just finally, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has said that Donald Trump has told him he won’t give Ukraine a penny. So, essentially warning that he would defund any support for the Ukrainian resistance. How concerned are you by those comments?


Simon Birmingham: Kieran, obviously I’ll leave domestic US politics as a matter where we respect the outcome of American voters. But I want to be clear that it would be a mistake for the United States to cease to support Ukraine. It would be a mistake that would have repercussions in terms of the way the United States is viewed around the world, and indeed, the way in which democratic, like-minded nations are viewed around the world. It would only seek to empower autocracies the likes of Vladimir Putin and potentially other nations who do need to have clear deterrence frameworks in place to ensure they don’t repeat the type of horrors that we’re seeing in Ukraine. Ukraine is a sovereign country with internationally recognised borders that Russia under Vladimir Putin chose to breach and has caused immense suffering in Ukraine in clear violation of international laws. The last thing the world needs is a situation where Putin or others are further empowered at a time of immense global destabilisation from the actions of many other nations as well. The last thing the world needs is to see those types of leaders potentially empowered, thinking they can get away with undertaking the likes of actions that Putin has been responsible for.


Kieran Gilbert: The Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham, there.