Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

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

Michael Rowland, Host: As we just heard, more Australians have left Israel overnight with three Australian Government organised flights leaving Tel Aviv airport on route to Dubai.

The Foreign Minister Penny Wong joins us now from Parliament House. Good morning.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good morning. Good to be with you.

Rowland: Great to have you on. Was that process, as far as you've been informed, a smooth one?

Foreign Minister: Look, I'm very pleased to say we have had three Australian Government-assisted flights, as you said, leave Tel Aviv for Dubai. I want to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Defence Force and all Australian officials who assisted in that. As I said, two RAAF planes and one privately contracted flight. I would say that means we've had about 1,200 Australians who have been facilitated in terms of departing Israel at this time.

Rowland: Do more want to get out?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, we did have many people who were registered for the flight who indicated they intended to fly but at the last minute did not wish to, as is people's right. But I would say this, people, we are looking to, arrange, subject to security and operational constraints, a further flight today Israeli time. People should consider that may be our last flight for the foreseeable future. I've been saying for some days, as you would know Michael, that if people wish to leave that they should take the first available option, they should not wait for another option. That has been my message for a few days. And, again, I say, you know, this may be the last flight for the foreseeable future. But I would also make this point, there are obviously very many Australian citizens, many dual citizens, in Israel who are there, may have registered with us but do not wish to leave.

Rowland: You also issued a strong warning, or a bit of advice, to Australian citizens in Lebanon to consider whether they should stay in that country. Why are you concerned about the situation in Lebanon?

Foreign Minister: Look, this connects to the broader risk that so many countries of the world are seeking to avoid, and that is regional spillover. And the conflict spilling over, it is, obviously we see the events, tragic events, in Israel, we see the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But the thing that many countries are seeking to avert is regional spillover.

In relation to Lebanon, what I've said to people is, you know, please consider if you need to stay. We have not said do not travel, but we have said if you are there, please consider if your presence is essential.

Rowland: Does that reflect government concern that Hezbollah from southern Lebanon will launch more attacks on Israel?

Foreign Minister: It reflects that concern and regional spill over, escalation beyond the Gaza border but also on Israel's northern border. Obviously, there is a lot of work being done, particularly by the United States, Egypt, Jordan, regional partners, to avert that happening. And that is very important for the region and for the world.

Rowland: What about the Australian citizens in Gaza, 19 at last count, Minister, wanting to get out of Gaza? What's the latest on their situation?

Foreign Minister: That is an extremely difficult, a very distressing situation. And we have been working as hard as we could over these last days alongside many other foreign governments to seek to get foreign nationals out of Gaza. So far that has not been successful. We continue to do a lot of engagement with the United States, with Israel, with Egypt to try and assure passage for Australians out of Gaza. Obviously, the security situation on the ground there is extremely difficult, and so far, we have not been able to do that. We will continue to do everything we can to arrange that passage.

Rowland: You talked about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It's plain to see to everybody. In your view, is that helped by Israel cutting off food, water and fuel to that territory?

Foreign Minister: What I would say is Israel has a right to defend itself. Indeed, as, you know, Secretary Blinken has said, an obligation to defend itself. But as he and President Biden have also said, how it does that matters. And we would continue to urge, as we have since the beginning of these tragic, horrific events, that civilian life at all times be protected as much as is possible. We would continue to urge the observance of international law. That is Australia's position, and it's consistent with the calls from the United States and also overnight the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom.

Rowland: Is what Israel's doing, though, consistent with helping civilians?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I don't think it's for me here in Canberra to sit in judgement on, judgments that the Israeli Government has to take in very difficult circumstances. But as a matter of principle, what Australia does and should always do and has always done is to call for the protection of civilian life and for the observance of international law.

Rowland: Penny Wong, moving to the Voice, why, in your view, did the referendum go down?

Foreign Minister: Well, because there was not bipartisan support, and we know that no referendum has passed without bipartisan support and that only eight out of I think 44 or 45 referenda have been successful.

But look, I take some heart from, you know, those frankly from both sides of the campaigns, both sides of the referendum question who are making the very important point that Australians didn't vote no to Closing the Gap, didn't vote no to reconciliation. And we do have to take our time now to come together as a country. There's obviously people who are hurting and we need to heal that. And we need to work together to work out what is the path forward now for reconciliation and how do First Nations people wish to walk that path.

Rowland: You say it was a lack of bipartisanship. Your Labor colleague Mike Freelander, Labor MP from Sydney, says the Yes case, the government appealed too much to what he described as the inner-city elites at the expense of suburban Australia, at the expense of country Australia. Has he got a point?

Foreign Minister: Look, obviously in regional Australia this was a challenging campaign. But I would say, you know, for example, I engaged with seats where we had a large Chinese community. I engaged in seats where we had people from a lot of South Asian communities. These are people, there were Australians from across all faiths, all heritages, people who weren't involved in political campaigns before, who were willing to support this.

So that gives me heart because I think we saw a lot of people involved in the Yes campaign who might not have, you know, previously been involved in a lot of political campaigns. And this certainly has shone a light on the disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians face. And I think that knowledge, that understanding, is much greater now through the broader Australian community than it was before the referendum.

Rowland: Penny Wong, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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