Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian membership; Hamas-Israel conflict; University protests; Unsafe and unprofessional interaction with PLA-Air Force; Future gas strategy.

Patricia Karvelas, Host: Later today Australian time, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on whether to recognise Palestine as a member of the body. It would be a significant step towards a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel, something the Federal Government maintains is the only pathway to peace in the Middle East.

Penny Wong is the Foreign Minister, and she joins the program this morning. Penny Wong, welcome.

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

Patricia Karvelas: How will Australia vote when the motion on Palestinian statehood comes before the UN General Assembly later today?

Foreign Minister: Well, can I first start by just setting some out of the developments that have occurred over the last period. Some weeks ago, you might recall, I gave a speech where I outlined the way in which the international community, that countries were looking to progress, a two‑state solution as a pathway to long-term peace in the Middle East.

Obviously, Australia has long supported a two-state solution, that is a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel.

What we expect tonight is a resolution at the United Nations that will express the view of the General Assembly that Palestine should become a member of the UN.

Now ultimately that is something that has to be determined by the Security Council under the UN Charter. This was voted on at the Security Council in the period since I gave that speech, and the majority of the Security Council did support Palestinian admission as a member of the UN. Obviously, it was vetoed by the US.

Coming to your question, we will consider the final resolution that comes before the General Assembly. Obviously, countries are still negotiating, text is changing. I got advice about new text overnight…

Patricia Karvelas: And what was that new text you got advice about?

Foreign Minister: Well, there is a lot of negotiation and discussion, and we will look at what the text says, we will look at what the actual meaning, the resolution is. We will look at, and we are focused on the situation on the ground. We want a humanitarian ceasefire, we want the release of hostages, we want increased humanitarian aid, and obviously we will be speaking to our friends and partners internationally, because we want to work with others as we try and encourage lasting peace in this region.

Patricia Karvelas: What are the conditions that you have to vote yes, what needs to be in the text to ensure your support?

Foreign Minister: I think it comes back to the general principle, doesn't it; what does the resolution mean? Does the resolution contribute towards lasting peace? Does the resolution demonstrate some progress towards a two-state solution?

Let's remember, we do need, as an international community, after months of what we have seen in Gaza, after the horrific attacks by Hamas, a terrorist group, which has as its objective the destruction of the State of Israel, we do need to think about what is a long‑term process which delivers security for Israel and for the Palestinian people.

Patricia Karvelas: So, there have been reports that you're leaning towards an abstention. If you were to abstain, what would that mean?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I don't want to speculate about our vote, because…

Patricia Karvelas: But isn't abstention seen as ‑ it's seen as sitting on the fence - is that how you see it?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think an abstention generally means you can agree in part with the resolution but not with sufficient, you know, not with all of it or not with a sufficient extent of the resolution for you to vote for it, so it can send a message that whilst you don't agree with it in full, you're not going to stand in the way.

So, abstentions are a common diplomatic position that countries take on matters. For example, the Security Council vote that I described, where 12 out of 15 Security Council members voted in favour of admitting Palestine as a member to the United Nations, there were two abstentions, and they were the United Kingdom and Switzerland. So, it isn't an uncommon approach that countries can take.

Patricia Karvelas: A few of our listeners are texting in saying why wouldn't you vote yes, given what you've said about supporting through the process rather than waiting to the end, recognition of Palestine?

Foreign Minister: Look, I understand that question, just as I understand your questions from those who don't want us to deal with it at this time. I think one of the things we are aware of and thinking about is the timing and the situation on the ground.

We know Hamas is still holding hostages. We want to look at the wording of the resolution and make sure we are being responsible in what we commit to. We are obliged to look to the UN Charter, and the resolution would have to be consistent with the charter, and of course we're working with our partners.

But your listeners, what I would say to them is Australia does support a two‑state solution. It's not a question of if we will recognise a Palestine State, it is a question of when.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. But if you were to vote no or abstain, wouldn't it be viewed by people who are pushing for a Palestinian State and a two-state solution, or a stronger line on Palestine as your reluctance?

Foreign Minister: I understand in this debate that people have such strong views on both sides, that any action or words by government is construed as either being at one end or the other of this debate.

You've spoken to me many times over the years, Patricia, and you know I always try and bring a more nuanced discussion about what is really happening, rather than getting drawn into, you know, the end, the hard edges of a debate.

Unfortunately, in this country we've seen, we see too much of this discussion, which is being looked at by those who basically say, 'you're either with us or against us,' and everything is black and white and simple. Regrettably, that is not what is happening in the Middle East, and regrettably, that is not how, you know, we should be looking at this. Well, not regrettably, I'm saying regrettably that this discussion prevents people from seeing, you know, what we are actually trying to do and what countries are genuinely trying to do.

Patricia Karvelas: What do you say to the argument that it is rewarding Hamas to either abstain or to vote yes?

Foreign Minister: Well, let's remember the two-state solution, that is a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel, is actually the opposite of what Hamas want.

You know, Hamas wants conflict. This is about long-term peace. Hamas wants to destroy Israel. This is about long-term security for Israel. So, what I would say is actually progress towards a two-state solution is the opposite of what Hamas wants.

Patricia Karvelas: You mentioned that Hamas is still holding hostages and concern around the timing here. Is the timing such a worry for Australia that you are reluctant to vote yes?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think you're trying to draw me on what we will do.

Patricia Karvelas: Yes, it is my job.

Foreign Minister: Yes, I know, of course it is, but I'm very frank with you. You know, this is what we are looking at. These are the principles and issues we have to consider, and we will make a decision when we see the final resolution on the basis of the principles you and I have discussed.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you welcome President Biden's decision to pause a shipment of bombs bound for Israel and the statements he's made around a ground incursion in Rafah?

Foreign Minister: I have made very clear statements about Australia's views about the risk of, deep and grave concerns about a widespread ground invasion in Rafah. I've been clear about our objections to an Israeli ground offensive into Rafah. We have reiterated this to Israel again in this last week.

As you know, more than half of the Gazan population is seeking shelter in Rafah from fighting elsewhere. I think that many countries have said similar things to Israel, and the fact that you have an American President making the statements President Biden has been making is an indication of the extent and depth of the concern of the international community.

Patricia Karvelas: The Greens are calling for Israel's Ambassador to be expelled from Australia if Israel goes ahead with a major ground incursion. Is that something you'd do?

Foreign Minister: No, we are not going to be doing that.

Patricia Karvelas: Why not?

Foreign Minister: Well, because we have diplomatic relationships with countries in many circumstances. We may not agree with everything that those countries do, but we believe engagement is important. Australia also has a long-standing relationship with Israel, a long-standing relationship over many years.

I would make the point, we also have diplomatic relationships with Putin's Russia, we have a diplomatic relationship with Iran. The reality is, this is just the Greens yet again trying to set out a much more extreme position in order to create political conflict, which is how they have approached this entire discussion.

Patricia Karvelas: There's a lot of unrest in Australia at the moment in relation to the issue around Gaza and the war there. University encampments of course have become a big thing. The Prime Minister has said he has a problem with the chant, 'From the river to the sea.' Do you?

Foreign Minister: I've always believed that what that says is contrary to a two-state solution. I've been clear about that. Whatever context in which it's being used, and it's being used by, I think, both sides of the argument, what it expresses is a view that is not consistent with the two-state solution. I support a two-state solution. I support security and peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you think some of the language being used on campuses is antisemitic?

Foreign Minister: Yes, I do.

Patricia Karvelas: What do you find antisemitic, and are Jewish students safe on Australian campuses?

Foreign Minister: Well, I would say this: universities have to ensure that they are safe spaces for all students, regardless of who they are.

Secondly, we do have a right to peaceful protest in this country, and people are entitled to protest in support of their views in a democracy. But in a speech that I gave, that I referred to at the beginning of this interview, I spoke not only about Israel and Palestine, I spoke about social cohesion. And one of the things I said is we seem to be losing the capacity in this country to disagree without diminishing the other. And that is a bad thing for our democracy, and it's something we have to guard against. All of us, including those who don't have strong views about this issue. We must defend people's right to disagree respectfully. We must ensure that we don't diminish each other in how we disagree, and there is too much of that, not only on campuses, but in our Parliament, and amongst our politicians. The diminution of the other and personal denigration and the tenor of the language used by some in this debate I think is irresponsible.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you support an inquiry into antisemitism on campuses which has been proposed by the Opposition?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think, if - we'll look at what they're proposing – if the objective is to actually try and generate social cohesion, you know, then I'd be supportive, but if the objective is to create conflict and division, I think that's a problem.

So I would hope that if the Opposition are genuine in trying to further a more harmonious country, a less divided country, then, you know, they would look at terms of reference that would look at how all students feel safe on campus, whether they are, you know, whether they are Jewish, or whether they are of the Islamic faith.

Patricia Karvelas: In the speech you've referenced, you talked about the international community moving to recognise Palestine, not at the end of the process, but earlier. Is that now Australia's position in terms of what our country will do, and when will it happen?

Foreign Minister: Well, yes, I do think Australia has traditionally, as have other countries, traditionally taken the view that we should recognise at the end of a negotiated process, well, decades down the track, I think, the international community shifting to thinking about how recognition might contribute to peace.

So that is my view, that we should recognise when we think we can make our maximum contribution to progress towards a two-state solution.

Can I say, however, there is a distinction between this vote in the United Nations and bilateral recognition, that is recognition by Australia, and one does not necessarily lead to the other, and at the same time.

Patricia Karvelas: Just on a couple of other issues briefly. China's national Defence spokesman has accused Australia of spying, and that Australia was acting provocatively.

You've been criticised, your government has been criticised, the Prime Minister has been criticised for being too weak in your language in relation to China for referring to it as "unprofessional conduct". Have you been too weak in denouncing this dangerous action from China?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, can I say very clearly that we stand by what we have said, and by what the Australian Defence Force has indicated occurred in relation to this incident.

The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have been clear about the unacceptable and unsafe conduct that took place while Australian Forces were contributing to the enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. And we stand by the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Force that the ADF were behaving professionally and appropriately.

But I want to make two points; first, I have been clear in my meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Minister Liu and Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Australia would continue to operate in international air space and international waters, and that we would continue to call out, including publicly, where we believe the conduct did not meet the standards that were necessary.

I know that Peter Dutton has always wanted to talk tough rather than being tough. I would make the point that this government has been consistent in what I have said, that is, we have continued to operate in international air space and international waters, in accordance with International Law, and in fact for the first time had joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Japan and the United States, something which never occurred under Peter Dutton.

Patricia Karvelas: What's your message to the Labor MPs who are very angry about your gas plan, and say you are letting the country down, we need to decarbonise?

Foreign Minister: We do need to decarbonise. I agree with them. I think the point of the gas strategy which has been released has been to point out how we'd make that transition, and that gas is a necessary part of that transition…

Patricia Karvelas: But they don't agree, and it's a big backbench revolt.

Foreign Minister: Yeah, and I would again make the point, which I believe which the gas strategy makes, is that we are not investing in gas. What we are investing in is renewables, and you will see more of that.

I've just recently been, in the last couple of days in Tuvalu, a Pacific Island country with whom Australia has signed a landmark treaty, and the point I made there is we have a very large ship to turn around. We are seeking to move from, I think a couple of years ago, just over 30 per cent of renewables in our electricity grid to in excess of 80 per cent by the end of the decade.

Now that is a big transition, it is an ambitious transition, and there is only one party of government committed to doing it.

Patricia Karvelas: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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