Senator Kimberley Kitching – Estimates questions about Australia’s embassy in Israel and aid to the Palestinian Territories

October 26, 2017

Questioned whether Australia has given consideration to moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and asked for an update on DFAT’s suspension of aid money to World Vision in the Palestinian Territories.

When the foreign minister says ‘the biggest stumbling blocks to Australia moving the embassy to Jerusalem are financial and security issues’, that doesn’t imply that, in fact, consideration has been given to moving it, including the stumbling blocks?

Whole interaction with Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT) and Mr Matthew Neuhaus (Acting First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT)  during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator KITCHING: Could we move on to the Middle East now? Sorry for jumping around. I want to ask some questions about Australia’s diplomatic presence in Israel. At the March additional estimates hearing, Mr Innes-Brown advised: ‘The Australian government’s position is that we have no plans to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.’ Is that still the Australian government’s position?


Mr Neuhaus : Yes, that does indeed remain our position.


Senator KITCHING: When asked whether it was also Minister Bishop’s position that there were no plans to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—Ms Adamson, I’m going to quote you—you said: ‘The foreign minister has outlined Australia’s position in exactly the terms that Mr Innes-Brown just described.’ Is that still the foreign minister’s position?


Ms Adamson : Yes, that’s correct.


Senator KITCHING: There was an article—


Ms Adamson : Yes, I know there was, but it’s her position. Articles are not always accurate.


Senator KITCHING: Sorry, what was that?


Ms Adamson : I said articles are not always accurate.


Senator KITCHING: No. That’s true. Those quotes were from the estimates hearing on 2 March this year. Then there was an article in The Australian, which quoted The Australian Jewish News, and that article is dated 25 August this year. It reported: ‘Ms Bishop said “the biggest stumbling blocks to Australia moving the embassy to Jerusalem are financial and security [issues]”.’ Given the evidence at this committee in March, has anything changed?


Ms Adamson : No.


Senator KITCHING: Has the foreign minister’s position changed?


Ms Adamson : No.


Senator KITCHING: What are the biggest factors in considering any decision by Australia to establish an embassy in Jerusalem?


Ms Adamson : We have an embassy in Tel Aviv; we don’t lightly move embassies; Tel Aviv is the main location for diplomatic missions in Israel; and there is no intention on the government’s part to move it.


Senator KITCHING: So when the foreign minister says ‘the biggest stumbling blocks to Australia moving the embassy to Jerusalem are financial and security issues’, that doesn’t imply that, in fact, consideration has been given to moving it, including the stumbling blocks?


Ms Adamson : As you know, newspaper articles are not always accurate. The position is as I’ve outlined it—both the position and of course the foreign minister’s position.


Senator KITCHING: I want to compare the British diplomatic presence in Israel—I think the foreign minister referred to Britain’s representation in Israel as a high commission. I will give you a quote from that event, where the foreign minister was speaking to Jewish community leaders. She said: ‘… let me have a look at what is happening in West Jerusalem. If there is a British High Commission there or a consulate of some description we can look at that.’ Does Britain have a high commission in Israel or an embassy?


Mr Neuhaus : Can I just make a point about high commissions and embassies? In a way, it sort of reinforces the inaccuracy of the quotes there, because high commissions are only in Commonwealth countries—I can say that as a former political director of the Commonwealth Secretariat—and Israel has never been a Commonwealth country. The British have an embassy, which is in Tel Aviv. They have inherited over the years—and it goes back a very long way; I think now over century—a consulate general, I think it is now, in Jerusalem.


Senator KITCHING: These are quotes taken from the foreign minister speaking at a function with Jewish community leaders. The point you are making is the point I am making.


Mr Neuhaus : I’m glad.


Senator KITCHING: Good. While we’re in that part of the Middle East I’ll go to Gaza. I want to ask about the World Vision, Gaza, Hamas, aid diversion case, which I think is still unresolved.


Mr Neuhaus : It is still unresolved, yes.


Senator KITCHING: I think that at this committee we’ve certainly spoken about DFAT’s suspension of funding to World Vision in, if we can call them this, the Palestinian Territories.


Mr Neuhaus : Yes.


Senator KITCHING: You undertook an internal review?


Mr Neuhaus : We did. It may be that Mr McDonald would also like to talk to this, because he has been heavily involved in that with some of the staff on the development side.


Senator KITCHING: Thank you.


Mr McDonald : The answer is: yes, there has been a management review done within the agency.


Senator KITCHING: And World Vision International and World Vision Australia also launched reviews—is that right? I think they were investigations, really.


Mr McDonald : There were three reviews that went on. One was our internal departmental review; there was a World Vision Australia review, which was around their management of the program; and then there was a World Vision International review which is around a forensic review of the program. They’ve all been completed.


Senator KITCHING: But not publicly released?


Mr McDonald : No, they haven’t, because the court case is still underway, as you know. The next hearing, I think, is scheduled for December—the fifth, I think from memory. So at this stage they’re not being made public, pending the completion of that court case.


Senator KITCHING: Once that matter’s finalised in the court, will you then release your findings?


Mr McDonald : The World Vision reports are a matter for them.


Senator KITCHING: But yours?


Mr McDonald : Yes, of course we can provide our report to you. The recommendations were really around some management aspects of our program, which we’ve already implemented and put in place. Yes, we’ve actioned it. Yes, I’m happy to take that on notice and provide that at an appropriate time.


Senator KITCHING: Okay. Not just in this particular instance but where funding has been suspended, what are your processes for lifting that suspension? What do you do in that regard?


Mr McDonald : It depends on the circumstances. As you know, the allegations that have been made here are very serious in relation to diversion of our aid program funding. Quite rightly, the Australian taxpayer wants assurance that that’s not occurring. When we get something like that, our practice in the past—not just with this—is to suspend that funding immediately pending the outcome of the investigation or the court case, and then we can make a decision based on that on what future action we take. I don’t think it’s really an option for us to end that suspension ahead of that being resolved, and I think our partners understand that. I think World Vision understand that as well.


Senator KITCHING: Thank you.

Link to full Hansard transcript.