Senator Mehreen Faruqi- Estimates questions regarding Australia’s decision to suspend funding to UNRWA

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
June 3, 2024

Minister, in January you suspended aid to UNWRA based on false and unproven allegations. You didn’t even undergo the basic due diligence of contacting UNWRA before suspending the funding. You basically made a decision not based on evidence. I can’t find a record of your apology to UNWRA after you reinstated that aid, nor to the people of Gaza, for this decision. Would you like to apologise now?

CHAIR: Welcome back, everyone. Off you go, Senator Faruqi.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, I will start with you. You would obviously know that UNWRA directly employs 30,000 personnel serving the humanitarian needs of about six million refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and the vast camps in neighbouring Arab countries. In Gaza it employs 1,300 people running schools, primary healthcare clinics and other social services, and also humanitarian aid. Since Israel launched its genocidal war on Gaza in October, around a million Gazans have sheltered in UNWRA schools, clinics and public buildings, and nearly the entire population now relies on UNWRA for basic necessities. Minister, in January you suspended aid to UNWRA based on false and unproven allegations. You didn’t even undergo the basic due diligence of contacting UNWRA before suspending the funding. You basically made a decision not based on evidence. I can’t find a record of your apology to UNWRA after you reinstated that aid, nor to the people of Gaza, for this decision. Would you like to apologise now?

Senator Wong: Senator, we covered some of the UNWRA issues this morning, but we’re very happy to deal with them again, including the changes that were required to be made as a consequence of some of the issues raised, including in the Colonna interim report. I’ll go to Mr Brazier to talk about the controls and assurances we have now put in place in relation to UNWRA funding.

Mr Brazier : Thank you, Minister, and thank you, Senator. I can go to some of the controls that we’ve put in place in response to the events earlier in the year.

Senator FARUQI: Let me be clear. I’m not talking about the controls; I’m talking about the evidence that the minister did not have when the minister made the decision to suspend the aid. Will the minister now apologise?

Mr Maclachlan: Thank you for your question. It was very clear from the get-go, on 26 January—27 January here, from memory—that on release of information about the very serious allegations that a number of UNWRA employees were alleged to have been involved in the 7 October attacks, that UNWRA itself took immediate and direct action to effectively terminate those employees. This was an action that was entirely consistent with our view about how serious the concerns were and how serious the allegations were that had been made at the time.

Senator FARUQI: I’m talking about the evidence, and I’m asking the minister: do you have that evidence to show that those allegations had any basis?

Senator Wong: UNWRA itself took action as a consequence—

Senator FARUQI: Minister, I’m not asking about UNWRA—

Senator Wong: Excuse me, I hadn’t finished.

CHAIR: Let the minister finish.

Senator Wong: The facts, as opposed to the political rhetoric, are that UNWRA itself took action as a result of those serious allegations. Serious allegations were made and, like other donor countries, we took the precautionary position of suspending funding pending advice to me not only on the allegations themselves, but on how Australia could continue to fund UNWRA with appropriate assurances and controls. The officials at the table did a lot of work to ensure that funding arrangements contain those controls and assurances in order for us to be able to provide the funding.

I note that you dismissed Mr Brazier when he sought to explain to you what those controls and assurances are. That’s a pity, because that was important work for the country. It enabled funding to flow. We cannot have a situation where Australian government funding could be misused in any way.

Senator FARUQI: Was it being misused, Minister? Do you have evidence—

Senator Wong: I hadn’t finished.

CHAIR: Senator Faruqi, let the minister finish.

Senator Wong: I hadn’t finished. Thank you, Senator Faruqi. We worked carefully through the information we had, including the briefing from the interim Colonna report. The officials did a lot of work putting in place controls and assurances, which has enabled funding to be resumed. I would have thought you would welcome that, and I would have thought that no-one would be asserting we should not be careful with Australian taxpayers’ money when there are very serious allegations that were made in relation to which UNWRA itself took action.

Senator FARUQI: Allegations without any proof. Minister, part 2.2 of the ministerial code of conduct requires:

Ministers must be able to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to observe relevant standards of procedural fairness and good decision making applicable to decisions made by them in their official capacity.

Do you think you showed procedural fairness and good decision-making practice when you suspended aid to UNRWA without a single piece of evidence and in light of the grave consequences of such a decision?

Senator Wong: I take my responsibilities, including the use of taxpayer funding, very seriously. I think what would have been irresponsible would have been for the foreign minister of Australia, faced with those sorts of allegations in relation to which UNRWA itself took action, to have continued to fund without making sure that I had assurances in place so that I could come to this parliament and say we have controls, assurances and updated arrangements that we believe provide us with sufficient security or sufficient safeguards in order to continue the funding. That’s what I’ve done.

Senator FARUQI: An independent review led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, which was commissioned by the UN in the wake of Israel’s allegations about UNRWA, found that Israel provided no credible evidence to back up its claims. Do you acknowledge that the suspension of aid was a mistake?

Senator Wong: I referenced the Colonna review in my previous answer. I engaged directly with Catherine Colonna, who I knew from her time as foreign minister. She also made some findings as to the strengthening of neutrality and integrity, and we would look forward to UNRWA doing so.

Senator FARUQI: Have you or the department inquired into how your actions in suspending aid to UNRWA in January with no evidence impacted on UNRWA’s provision of services, knowing that they require long timelines and funding certainty to be able to take humanitarian aid through Israeli blockades?

Senator Wong: I engaged directly with UNRWA about these issues, including a discussion about what other donors were doing. Mr Maclachlan can assist on this.

Mr Maclachlan: At no point in the months following the suspension of Australian aid, alongside many other nations, did UNRWA cease to have sufficient funding to maintain its operations. It was concerned, that is true, about the prognosis. However, it had sustained funding throughout that period.

Senator FARUQI: Was there any effect on UNRWA’s employees because of the suspension of aid?

Senator Wong: No, but UNRWA terminated the employment of a number of employees following the allegations.

Senator FARUQI: What about after the suspension? Was there an impact on UNRWA employees because Australia suspended its aid?

Senator Wong: Your capacity to not listen to the answer and the evidence, in order to make a political attack, really is astounding. The officer has just told you that funding continued from other sources.

Senator FARUQI: Sorry, Minister. Don’t try and gaslight me as you have done many previous times. I am asking about a specific impact on employees.

CHAIR: Order! Senator Faruqi, thank you very much. We don’t need extra commentary today. Senator Faruqi, allow the officer and the minister to conclude, and then you’ll have the opportunity to respond with a question.

Mr Maclachlan: To answer your question about the effect of the suspension on UNRWA employees: it’s very clear. UNRWA has maintained its decision to sack a number of employees, even after receiving advice and further information.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, there was no new funding for UNRWA in the budget—is that accurate?

Ms Delaney : There is an allocation for UNRWA in the 2024-25 budget.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, you are aware that there is desperate need for more funding for UNRWA. Why didn’t the government allocate more funding?

Senator Wong: This is what I mean. She just answered a question, and then you asked a question which completely contradicted the answer that was given.

Senator FARUQI: I’m asking you why there isn’t more funding.

Senator Wong: She has just said there is.

Ms Delaney : There is an allocation.

Senator FARUQI: I must have misheard that. How much more funding?

Ms Delaney : $20 million has been allocated.

Senator FARUQI: Is that the usual funding that is allocated to UNRWA, or is that an increase in funding?

Ms Delaney : The government increased the contribution to UNRWA in the last budget in the collection. This maintains that funding.

Senator FARUQI: So it’s the maintenance of that funding. No extra funding over and above that?

Senator Wong: Maintenance of increased funding.

Senator FARUQI: Which was done last year, not in this year’s budget.

Senator Wong: Maintenance of the increased funding.

Mr Maclachlan: Funding to UNRWA exists alongside funding of other UN agencies that the government has committed to. That has totalled $62.5 million since 7 October.

Senator FARUQI: I do know that. Thank you. I’m asking particularly about UNRWA. Minister, four days after the—

CHAIR: Last question and then I will move the call around.

Senator Wong: Mr Brazier wants to add something.

Mr Brazier : Every year the government allocates funds to the humanitarian emergency fund. For the next financial year, that will be $150 million. Through the financial year, the government, on the advice of the humanitarian coordinator, allocates those funds to the highest need. Through the current financial year, there would be numerous instances of the humanitarian emergency fund being used to support the need in Gaza but UNRWA in particular.

Senator FARUQI: I do have a question about that later. Thanks for that information. I will come back.

CHAIR: I will come back to you.

Senator Wong: Can I make one more comment? The Senator is critical of the suspension in order to consider the serious allegations which were made. I assume she would be equally critical of the governments of Austria, Britain, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden and the United States for doing the same thing.

Senator FARUQI: I am, but I don’t live there. I’m part of this parliament, not their parliaments. You are the minister accountable for this decision, hence I want to question you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Senator and Minister. I will hand the call briefly to Senator Green and then Senator Birmingham.

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