Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about Trump’s peace deals and aid to Palestinian Territories

photo of Senator Eric Abetz
October 28, 2020

Questioned Australia’s response to the agreements negotiated by the Trump administration between Israel and other Middle Eastern states, and the reduction in Australian aid funding to UNRWA and other organisations in the Palestinian Territories.

I am just wondering, to get into the issue of Israel, how many in the department predicted the success of President Trump in being able to help negotiate between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan peaceful treaties with Israel, which from my perspective is a major, major breakthrough, exceptionally welcome and hopefully a harbinger of a few more. I will park that rhetorical question as to who predicted it, but have we written messages—however we do that in diplomatic circles—to those three countries, indicating our support for these new treaties?

Whole interaction with Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Global Counter-Terrorism, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT), Dr Justin Lee (First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division, DFAT) and Mr James Gilling (First Assistant Secretary, Humanitarian Non-Government Organisations and Partnerships Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

CHAIR: I am just wondering, to get into the issue of Israel, how many in the department predicted the success of President Trump in being able to help negotiate between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan peaceful treaties with Israel, which from my perspective is a major, major breakthrough, exceptionally welcome and hopefully a harbinger of a few more. I will park that rhetorical question as to who predicted it, but have we written messages—however we do that in diplomatic circles—to those three countries, indicating our support for these new treaties?


Dr Macdonald : I couldn’t agree more with the way you characterised it as a breakthrough.


CHAIR: It is amazing what you can do on Twitter!


Dr Macdonald : The minister has welcomed each of those treaties, signings, accords-the Abraham accords—and the subsequent Sudan-Israel agreement. I know that at the officials level, our ambassadors and I here in Canberra have been in touch with the embassies as well to congratulate them on those achievements.


CHAIR: It would be fair to say that I would have been in the category of saying that it was unlikely to have been achieved. We are told that these might be the harbinger of other agreements. So how likely do we think that might be? Can we look with some degree of hope at least that these might come to fruition?


Dr Macdonald : I think you used the word ‘encouraged’. That is definitely what the minister has said—that Australia would encourage other nations to normalise their relations with Israel and join these steps towards reconciliation and peace.


CHAIR: Great. Can I move to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, please. Am I correct to say that an expert panel was engaged by DFAT to guide Australia’s involvement in this alliance? If that is the case, Dr Lee, what’s the current status of that?


Dr Lee : That is correct. Just for further background, we joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in June 2019. We did engage an expert panel, who we continue to engage for expert advice. They helped us with the application to join the alliance and they continue to provide us with expert advice.


CHAIR: And this provision of expert advice has led to what in material terms? For example, have they been involved in trying to get the Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and Communications, which has responsibility for the ABC, on board to participate in the interdepartmental committee to support Australia’s engagement with the alliance?


Dr Lee : I recall that you asked previously—


CHAIR: Question on notice No. 7.


Dr Lee : Yes. I recall you asked previously about the working definition of anti-Semitism and how that would be extended to other agencies. I would say at the moment that we continue to engage with the Attorney-General’s Department on that. The Attorney-General’s Department needs to make the decision and interpretation of how we give effect to that working definition. At the moment we are talking to the Attorney-General’s Department, but we still do not have a judgement or decision on how we should apply that.


CHAIR: Could I just encourage some greater momentum in that area. At ABC estimates, I have now asked the ABC on two occasions as to whether or not they are willing to adopt the alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism in their journalism. I am just wondering: has the expert panel provided any advice or guidance or been asked by the ABC to provide such advice to them?


Dr Lee : I’m not aware whether—


CHAIR: Could you take that on notice and ask the expert panel? I’d be much obliged.


Dr Lee : I’ll take it on notice.


CHAIR: Senator Kitching, I know you are online and, should you feel that you want to intervene or ask any further question as to matters I’ve raised, please speak up.


Senator KITCHING: Senator Abetz, given the spectrum—and Senator Rice has asked some questions I wanted to ask and you have as well—and in relation to encouraging normalisation of relations in the Middle East, I might just ask about Lebanon.


CHAIR: Senator, if I may, I was hoping that you would bounce off issues that I’ve raised. If I can quickly finish the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance issue and then I’ll pass to you to ask questions on that issue just to keep it together in the Hansard, if that’s okay. Would it be fair to describe Australia as a bit of an outlier in not having adopted the alliance’s very widely consulted and respected definition of anti-Semitism? It’s being used by various jurisdictions and institutions around the world, I’m told. So, if other countries are doing it, why the delay here?


Dr Lee : I’d need to take that on notice as to how many countries have adopted the definition.


CHAIR: I accept that.


Dr Lee : I know that there are other definitions that are being put forward on other issues, including in relation to Roma communities recently, not just definitions around anti-Semitism alone. I recall that different countries have different positions on this, so I would need to take on notice just what other countries have done in relation to those definitions. I would say that, in terms of the activities that we have undertaken in relation to the alliance, we joined the 2020 ministerial declaration marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration extermination camps and reaffirmed our commitment to Holocaust remembrance and education. So we’ve been in lockstep with other countries of the alliance in that declaration.


CHAIR: As part and parcel of that—and you’ve started answering, I think, the next question I was going to ask: namely, is the government considering an annual Holocaust memorial week, which I understand is an aspect of the membership of the alliance. If so, has work progressed in this area, and are there any details available?


Dr Lee : Holocaust remembrance and education are important parts of the alliance, and we need to do further consultation with government on that.


CHAIR: I think we might need the ambassador for that. Whilst we await his return, if I may, I will quickly jump in and ask a few questions about official development assistance to Palestinian territories. I understand that has been reduced by $12.8 million. Is that correct?


Dr Macdonald : Yes.


CHAIR: And $10 million of this has come from underfunding?


Dr Macdonald : Yes.


CHAIR: Where has the other $2.8 million come from?


Dr Macdonald : Decisions are still to be made by government as to what the allocations will be within the program for this financial year.


CHAIR: So $12.8 million has been removed from the funding to the Palestinian authorities, and $10 million came from UNRWA.


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.


CHAIR: So we haven’t determined where the other $2.8 million is going to come from?


Dr Macdonald : I would flip it and say the other way: we haven’t determined the exact allocations for this year as yet.


CHAIR: That’s the positive funding but, as I understand it, there was a $12.8 million reduction.


Dr Macdonald : As you said, $10 million was from UNRWA. The other reduction is from the bilateral country program—if I could put it that way—and those allocations have not been determined yet.


CHAIR: Thank you for that further explanation. To cut to the chase: this was not a budgetary decision, was it; it was more a decision about the concern of how the money was being spent?


Dr Macdonald : I’d have to defer to Mr Gilling, from the Humanitarian NGOs and Partnerships Division.


Mr Gilling : Could you repeat your question, please?


CHAIR: We had, I think, come to an agreement previously with Dr Macdonald that $12.8 million has been reduced in the funding to the Palestinian territories. I was asking whether that was simply a budgetary decision or whether it was as a result of concerns as to how the money was being spent.


Mr Gilling : There was a cut to the UNRWA humanitarian component. As Dr Macdonald mentioned, there are two elements to the aid program; there’s the bilateral element and the humanitarian elements. I am talking about the humanitarian element to UNRWA. My understanding is that that cut was indeed a budget cut; it wasn’t a cut based on the performance of the organisation.


CHAIR: Really? My goodness! What would you need to justify a cut to an organisation if we are still willing to fund UNRWA? I would have thought that its reputation would be such that— Is Australia going to remain a member of the UNRWA advisory committee?


Mr Gilling : I don’t have that information with me. Dr Macdonald may be able to provide that.


Dr Macdonald : I’ll confirm if this is incorrect, but my understanding is that we will remain a member of that advisory board because we are still contributing to UNRWA. But I will double check to confirm that that is correct.


CHAIR: Have any officials met with the new UNRWA director-general, Philippe Lazzarini?


Dr Macdonald : Yes, I have—virtually.


CHAIR: What was the nature of those discussions, if you are at liberty to disclose?


Dr Macdonald : I have met with him twice, as I said, virtually. We spoke once in August and once in October. We spoke particularly about our expectations for good governance and the management of UNRWA, noting the points that you made earlier and the points that we are very aware of around the findings of some mismanagement and misconduct and the disciplinary action that was subsequently taken against some individuals. So we reiterated our expectations of the highest levels of integrity and good governance. I also reiterated our expectations around education and—


CHAIR: I was going to get onto that; so thank you.


Dr Macdonald : our expectations around tolerance, non-discrimination, equality and neutrality in the education programs that UNRWA supports through the schools.


CHAIR: According to budget statements, Australia doesn’t appear to have made any further contributions to the UN Humanitarian Fund in the Palestinian territories. Am I reading that correctly?


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.


CHAIR: Australia’s aid investment plan for the Palestinian territories expired in 2019. Is that correct?


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.


CHAIR: Has work been undertaken on an updated plan?


Dr Macdonald : I can ask a colleague to talk on that more broadly, but it is not—


CHAIR: Given the time, please take that on notice.


Dr Macdonald : I would just say that it is now a COVID development response plan rather than an aid investment plan. We do have that and it has just been put on our website. I can refer you to that.


CHAIR: Alright; whatever it’s called and however it comes, if you can assist by taking that on notice—including, if yes, what is the detail of that work?


Senator Payne: We will.


CHAIR: Alright. I have a few more if I may. I think it was last time round that I asked about the UN’s investigation into the alleged misconduct of a former UNRWA director-general, and I was told at the time that a copy of the report had been sought. That was withheld whilst disciplinary proceedings were being contemplated, and also the UN alleges that it wants to protect the privacy of the complainants, so it doesn’t want to release the report. Where are we at with that? Has there been any movement on the release of the report?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. We did receive a copy of the reports. They were given to us with the condition of strict confidentiality.


CHAIR: So the Parliament of Australia, which provides huge funding to UNRWA, does not get to see this report?


Dr Macdonald : I’ll have to take that on notice.


Senator Payne: It’s not our report, Senator, but I understand the point you are making.


CHAIR: I accept that it it’s not our report and the condition on which we received it. Being good international citizens, we need to abide by our undertakings. But if the concern was about protecting the privacy of complainants I would have thought certain aspects could be appropriately redacted to protect privacy, and full disclosure could still be made as to misbehaviour, if it was such, by the director-general. Anyway, that’s been taken on notice. We’ll see what you can do on that front.

The Australian Jewish News, on 26 March 2020, published an article suggesting that we might be inadvertently funding Palestinian groups with links to terrorist organisations. Can you confirm that about two years ago Australia withdrew aid to the Palestinian Authority after President Abbas refused to confirm how he was using those funds?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. The government made a decision in 2018 not to fund the Palestinian Authority.


CHAIR: Rather than just cutting the funding, we redirected that to a United Nations agency?


Dr Macdonald : I’m not sure if that was the same funding but we did make a payment that you to UNOCHA, the humanitarian fund.


CHAIR: Was the money redirected?


Dr Macdonald : I would have to take that on notice.


CHAIR: Take that on notice, yes. I’ve been told that the money was redirected to the United Nations humanitarian fund for Palestinian territories. Does that ring a bell?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. I know we have spoken about this previously. I can’t confirm if it was that exact money that was redirected. But we did make a payment in 2018 to UNOCHA, the humanitarian fund.


CHAIR: And that funds a range of projects—is that correct?


Dr Macdonald : There were several elements. It funded some UN agencies directly. It also funded some international NGOs.


CHAIR: Including $1 million, albeit in US dollars, for the purchase of emergency fuel for Gaza? Take that on notice.


Dr Macdonald : I’ll have to take that on notice. I’m not sure of that detail.


CHAIR: And $1 million allocated to unnamed UN agencies to provide food?


Dr Macdonald : I think we subsequently were able to clarify that those agencies were UNRWA, for health needs; UNICEF, for water and sanitation; and the World Health Organization.


CHAIR: Was that the $2.4 million for unspecified projects?


Dr Macdonald : I will take those on notice as well.


CHAIR: If you could take that on notice and give me a breakdown of the lot, that would be exceptionally helpful. But it is alleged that $3.1 million was delivered to international non-government organisations, including for work in food, water and health. At this stage, there has been no identification of which NGOs received that money. Are you able to split that up for us on notice?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. In fact, we did answer a question on notice with those in June this year. The payment of $3.1 million to the international NGOs went to a pooled fund; when the money goes in, you don’t know which organisations will have access to it. Subsequently, through the course of that year, several organisations have had access. I have the list here. It was also at Hansard in June.


CHAIR: Do any of those organisations have links to terrorist groups or members of terrorist groups?


Dr Macdonald : Not that we’re aware of, but it was the complex operating environment, combined with the fact that the pooled funds and the way that that operates meant we had very little visibility, at the beginning, of which organisations would access it—that we are no longer funding that.


CHAIR: You’re no longer funding it.


Dr Macdonald : That’s right.


CHAIR: As I understand it, some of the groups also support the anti-Semitic BDS campaign. If we’ve stopped funding that, that is good.

Link to full Hansard transcript.