Senator Helen Polley – in support of Senator Wong’s motion

October 17, 2023

Australia’s principled position in all contexts is to call for peace, for the protection of civilian lives and for the observance of international humanitarian law. I concur with US President Biden—that rules of engagement must be upheld, and peace must not be just hopeful thought but rather humanitarian duty.

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (20:17): I rise to contribute to this debate on Israel. From the outset I make it clear that I rise in this place as a member of the Australian government and a senator for Tasmania. I’m also looking at this issue through the prism of being a mother, a sister and a grandmother. I cannot possibly come to terms with what the people of Israel and Palestine are going through right now. We live in very uncertain times and the people of that region are going through exceptionally difficult and trying times. Their entire world as they know it is breaking down. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

We stand with you against the abhorrent terrorist attacks. Our hearts break for the loss of innocence, the young lives, the babies, the children, the grandparents and the parents. I unequivocally condemn the attacks on Israel by the terrorist group Hamas. The actions that took place that started this conflict last week were cowardice acts of terrorism. There are no other words for it. Murders at a concert, murders within the homes of families—all innocent lives perished—murdering civilians, including women, children and babies, and taking Israelis hostage and other acts of bloodshed and barbarianism are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

The attack by Hamas was brutal in its scale: 1,400 civilians murdered, 3,500 people injured and as many as 150 people taken from Israel and held hostage in Gaza. These are not just 150 people; these are women, children, men and grandparents. We don’t know the full extent at this point in time.

Australia stands with Israel, and always will. Just as we will always remember the thousands of years of persecution and atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people and the six million European Jews killed in the Holocaust, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

I stand with Israel and recognise its rights to defend itself. We must all call out this racism, this terrorist attack, for what it really is. We do need to be clear about what has taken place here. Hamas has carried out a terrorist attack against Israel and its people. There is no justification for this attack. And, in the face of this attack, we stand resolute.

I want to commend today, here in this place, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong, for her leadership, and the Prime Minister, as I do those leaders within our communities who have been very considered in the language that they are using, to ensure that we are, as we should be, good international citizens. We should be doing everything we can to bring about peace. But we also must ensure that that peace and respect are foremost in our minds and the minds of those people who are protesting in our streets, and of those who are emotionally charged—which we can all understand, irrespective of whether you are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. What we are really pro is human life and humanity.

Australia’s principled position in all contexts is to call for peace, for the protection of civilian lives and for the observance of international humanitarian law. I concur with US President Biden—that rules of engagement must be upheld, and peace must not be just hopeful thought but rather humanitarian duty. If this conflict were to spread across the region, the risk to Israeli security would be increased, as it would be for the Israeli and Palestinian civilians and for civilian populations throughout the region. Averting regional escalation is crucial. It matters to the people of the region and it matters to the entire world.

The Jewish people do not deserve the prejudice they face every day. I reach out to the Jewish community in Australia, who are suffering right now—concerned for their family, their friends and their loved ones; seeing the pictures of war and of their homeland destroyed.

But I implore people to ensure that, with our sadness and with our concern, we are respectful of other people’s views and we are very careful with our words, because the tone of what we say within this chamber and the other place sets the lead for the rest of the country to follow. I despair with the greatest sadness when I see protesters in Australia engaged in antisemitic behaviour. This has no place in Australia. It should be rightly condemned, and people should face the full brunt of the justice system for these types of insensitive and cruel actions. My family having been on the receiving end of racism in my home state of Tasmania, and knowing what my girls went through, I feel very deeply about racism. Whether we’re talking about the conflict in the Middle East or about what has happened in this country in recent times, unfortunately, there is a very strong element of racism that can be tapped into when people are emotional and when people want to use it for their own political gain.

I have long been a supporter of the two-state solution, and I have a long-held view that coincides with the majority of Western countries. I had the great fortune of visiting Israel—and I have to say that, of the places that I’ve been in this country and around the world, the most moving place I have ever been on this planet was old Jerusalem—and sitting and sharing a meal with Palestinians and with Israelis.

The conflict has been going on for far too long. Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can do. But, in times like this, we have huge responsibility as an international leader. People look to Australia. That’s why it’s so important that we use the right tone and that we express our concern for humanity and for all those innocent people that have been caught up in this conflict, and that we condemn the terrorism for what it really is.

We need peace in that region. Peace is the only currency that is going to serve Israelis and Palestinians. But what concerns me is how rapidly things can deteriorate. I haven’t been abreast, over the last few hours, of any changes that are happening in Gaza, but I have had some news of people arriving back in this country and how grateful they were to the government and the department for the way that they have been treated. It makes me very proud to be an Australian when we show that hand of humanity and friendship. Dual citizens know that we are standing there with them, standing for humanity and standing against terrorism, wherever that is.

We need to ensure that civilians are protected and have safe passage if they need to leave the region. We know what the Israelis are asking people to do. Our responsibility as a government is to make sure that we provide financial support to the humanitarian not-for-profits that are there supporting those people to ensure that they have safe passage, food, water and other provisions. I’m so proud of the money that we’ve already given, including $3 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to fund urgent needs like restoring essential services and providing medical support to victims of the conflict, and $7 million through UNICEF and UNOPS to deliver critical support, including emergency water, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene services as well as child protection.

As I’ve said in this place many times, I condemn in the strongest possible terms hate speech, violent extremism and antisemitic overtures. Tonight I want to reiterate that. Australia is a country of people who are very compassionate. We believe in humanity. We believe in the sanctity of life. As a mother, a sister and a grandmother, my heart goes out. I don’t know how families are going to recover from these atrocities, but we as a country have a responsibility, as I said, to be a good international citizen. I just urge those people and the Israeli government to ensure that food supplies and water are available to Gaza, because we’re talking about innocent families here. We’re talking about civilians. These people are trying to survive.

Millions of people should not suffer because of the senseless acts of a few. We must be better. We must preserve life at all costs. I welcome the repatriation flights bringing Australians home to safety. I spoke to Senator O’Neill tonight, who was there and able to greet some of those citizens arriving back. What a great honour to be able to do that and to know that there were welcoming people there who were grateful to see them returning home. Those messages and that support, now that they have arrived home, are not the end of it. They have to deal with the consequences of what they’ve lived through.

Again, I urge people in this place and the other place and within the community to be respectful, to understand that we are responsible citizens of the globe and that we should be leading by example and doing everything we can to bring about peace, to bring about support for people, to make sure that they have the basic humanitarian needs that we all need. We should do everything we can to bring an end to this conflict as soon as possible but also to stand with Israel, to condemn this terrorist attack and to be strong international citizens ourselves.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard