ABC Radio National with Patricia Karvelas

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Hamas-Israel conflict; Voice to Parliament referendum.

Part of this transcript has been redacted in accordance with Digital Transformation Agency guidelines.

Patricia Karvelas, Host: Penny Wong is the Foreign Affairs Minister. She joins me live in our Adelaide studio. And it's great to be in your city with you, Penny Wong. Thanks for joining us.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thank you for being here. And yes, it's a beautiful city, very glad to have you here. You could broadcast out of here PK, there you go.

Karvelas: I'd be happy to move. Look, let's get to what is an absolutely devastating story unfolding in the Middle East. The Israeli Defence Minister has ordered the complete siege of Gaza, the cutting off of food, fuel and electricity. Do you think that level of response is justified?

Foreign Minister: Well, Israel has a right to defend itself and this was an abhorrent attack. And the taking of hostages, the attacks on civilians, the sorts of images, awful images that we are seeing, reminds us of the security situation that Israel confronts. This is really a dreadful situation, a devastating loss of life. And I think we should all be very clear that these attacks are abhorrent. And Australia does very clearly, as I said to the Foreign Minister, Israeli Foreign Minister, when I spoke to him, we do stand in solidarity with Israel and we recognise and support its right to defend itself.

Karvelas: Does that right to defend itself extend to what looks like collective punishment?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think it's always very difficult from over here to make judgments about what security approach other countries take. We've said Israel has a right to defend itself. We call for all hostages to be released. But we also have a principal position which we would advocate to all nations and all groups in all situations, which is we would urge for the protection of civilian lives and restraint, which ensures, as far as possible, that that occurs.

Karvelas: That word restraint has become contentious. Just talk me through what you mean by restraint. Israel has a right to defend itself, but where should it be applying restraint? Is the whole siege of the Gaza Strip appropriate?

Foreign Minister: Well, on the latter, I don't think that's a decision that is easy to make from overseas with the situation that countries that Israel faces. But I would say this, I think Australia should always, in any conflict, be saying we want civilian lives to be protected. And that is what I have advocated. Frankly, it's very similar to the things that Simon Birmingham has said. And I just would ask you to think about what's the alternative? What's the alternative to Australia urging restraint and the protection of civilian lives?

Karvelas: What's the latest information you have. Have any Australians been caught up on the ground in Israel or Palestine?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, we are seeking to confirm the welfare of Australians who may have been caught up in this attack. And I'd repeat what I said yesterday, that if there are Australians in Israel or in the Palestinian territories, we would urge you to contact your families to make sure we can verify your safety and they are aware of your safety.

Karvelas: The ABC has been contacted by a woman in Israel who's been in a bomb shelter. As of last night, she said she had contacted the Australian Embassy and asked for advice. She hasn't received any, they haven't been in contact with her. What should someone in that position do?

Foreign Minister: Well, I will follow that up if you give me her details after we get off air. But I can say to you, I've spoken both to our Ambassador in Israel and our Head of Post in the Palestinian territories, and both to thank them for the work they're doing to make sure that everybody is safe, but also to ask them to continue to do what they're doing, which is to make sure they engage as much as they are able with Australians on the ground.

Karvelas: Major airlines, including American Airlines, Air France, Emirates are pulling their flights from Tel Aviv. Will that impact Australians and others who are trying to leave Israel? Are you concerned?

Foreign Minister: Yes, I saw those reports overnight and they are obviously very concerning for people who are seeking to get out. The advice to me to date is obviously Tel Aviv Airport remains open and there are commercial options available, although I note that they are narrowing and there have been quite a lot of flight cancellations, so I have asked, we're continuing to monitor that and we will do that.

Karvelas: Yesterday you said Israel hadn't yet asked for military support, but the Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says Australia should be more forthright in offering aid. Is Australia prepared to get involved?

Foreign Minister: Well Mr Dutton always wants to find a political difference, doesn't he? What I would say is I've spoken, unlike him, to the Foreign Minister of Israel, there has been no such request. We have offered political solidarity, our continued support and we are reaching out and engaging with other parties in the region. You said in your introduction, and it was the right thing to point to, that you talked about the risk of escalation to a regional conflict, obviously, where Australia can engage and is engaging, consistent with the approach that the Israeli Government is taking, with other countries in the region because what we are seeing is horrific. What would be even more horrific would be this to escalate to beyond the current conflict.

Karvelas: And how high is that risk right now?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think everybody understands the importance of making, doing everything we can to make sure this doesn't escalate further. And you've seen the comments from Secretary Blinken as well as the Jordanians, for example. I think people do understand why it's important to continue to engage.

Karvelas: Do you believe this is a play by Iran to draw the United States in?

Foreign Minister: I've seen a lot of commentary about that. I'll leave it to those who are writing those pieces. Obviously, this is a part of the world where there are a lot of, long history, a lot of conflict, a lot of suffering.

Karvelas: The death toll is quickly rising. Israel has called this a war. They say they're in a state of war. They've already shut off power to Palestine. Should Palestinian civilians be offered humanitarian support?

Foreign Minister: Well, our consistent position in every conflict is the protection of civilian lives and the observation of humanitarian law. That is Australia's position in the context of any conflict.

Karvelas: You have copped some criticism, which you alluded to before, but I just want to go to it just to address it, around your language around the conflict, because you've urged restraint, you made the point that what other word would you use? Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says now is the wrong time for that language. What's your response to that?

Foreign Minister: Well, Mr Dutton always wants to find difference. I find it somewhat extraordinary that a senior Australian politician would actually suggest that Australia arguing or advocating for civilian lives to be protected is something wrong.

Karvelas: There was Johannes Leak cartoon of you from yesterday inferring that you're on the side of Hamas. That's, as I say, the inference. It's a cartoon so people can interpret it as they want. It's been retweeted by Coalition MP Michael Sukkar. What's your reflection on that?

Foreign Minister: I think Australians deserve a better level of debate than that.

Karvelas: I want to talk to you about what we've seen unfold on Australian streets in solidarity with what's going on overseas. There were the buildings lit up in the Israeli colours, obviously the iconic Opera House, and rallies around the country in support of, particularly you know, people who feel like the Palestinians have suffered as well. There were some pretty disturbing chants which were anti-Semitic. Are you concerned about that, the flavour of that?

Foreign Minister: I think we should all be concerned. Look, people come to this country because we're peaceful, we're tolerant, we're respectful. There is no place in Australia for anti-Semitism or prejudice or hatred of any kind. And we should all stand firm against the sort of anti-Semitic language that unfortunately some engaged in, just as we should stand firm against all prejudice. It goes to who we are as a country and it goes to one of our greatest strengths, which is our diversity, but you know, our unity around values.

Karvelas: So, what do you say to those Palestinian activists and their supporters, no doubt, who are protesting, concerned that you're showing solidarity with Israel when they say they've been suffering under an occupation for so long?

Foreign Minister: I think two things, the first thing I would say is there is no place for anti-Semitism in our society. And the second thing I would say is, we know this is a conflict or this is a region of the world where there has been long standing dispute, long standing suffering, violence on all sides. Nothing justifies what we have seen Hamas engage in, and you've heard me, I think you and I have spoken before about our position in terms of seeking a just and enduring two-state solution which recognises the legitimate aspirations of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. I think that is a very separate argument to what we are seeing now. Nothing justifies the violence, the hostage taking, the killing of civilians, the awful scenes we have seen Hamas engaging in.

Karvelas: Penny Wong, before I let you go, we're only a couple of days away from a historic referendum. All of the public polling demonstrates that it's likely to go down, although until all the votes are counted, we won't know. And I think that is important for the process. But you're the Foreign Minister. We've been talking about very much foreign issues playing out in the Middle East. How will the world see us if we deliver a No vote on Saturday night?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm campaigning as hard as I can for a Yes vote, so obviously I'm not going to engage on that. What I would say to Australians is this, let's remember where this came from. And you know this, Patricia, and you've made sure you've allowed these voices to be heard, enabled these voices to be heard. This came through a process of over 200 delegates, First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates meeting at Uluru in 2017, those people having been sent there after consultation with hundreds and hundreds of their peoples. And they issued this request together. That's where this came from. And successive Liberal Governments, this had bipartisan support…


Karvelas: Thank you so much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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