Senator Mehreen Faruqi – Estimates questions relating to Australian funding of UNRWA

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
February 15, 2024

Anyway, the report also reports on almost 28,000 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli attacks. Seventy per cent of those killed are reported to be women and children, and there are another almost 68,000 Palestinians who are injured, as well as 156 UNRWA staff who have been killed, as of 10 February. Minister, on 27 January, you announced the suspension of funding for UNRWA, along with some other nations, effectively punishing two million people in Gaza by depriving them of the critical support that UNRWA provides.

Senator FARUQI: Could I start by tabling UNRWA’s latest situation report, as of 10 February. I think the secretariat has the report. It really paints a picture of—

Senator Wong: Has that been agreed by the committee? The senator is tabling a report. It’s a report that we already have, but I’m happy for her to table it. I assume that you’ve agreed to it.

CHAIR: No. I’ll have a look at it first. As has been my past practice, I’ll review it before we table it—

Senator Wong: It is a courtesy to make sure that the committee agrees first.

CHAIR: and distribute it for information only.

Senator FARUQI: I thought we had—

Senator Wong: I am just asking. It is the senator’s.

Senator FARUQI: Anyway, the report also reports on almost 28,000 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli attacks. Seventy per cent of those killed are reported to be women and children, and there are another almost 68,000 Palestinians who are injured, as well as 156 UNRWA staff who have been killed, as of 10 February. Minister, on 27 January, you announced the suspension of funding for UNRWA, along with some other nations, effectively punishing two million people in Gaza by depriving them of the critical support that UNRWA provides. This is tantamount to the Australian government further inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians and is in addition to the shielding and aiding of the State of Israel in its mission to annihilate Gaza and massacre tens of thousands of Palestinians. Minister, you have said that you spoke to UNWRA chief Mr Philippe Lazzarini on 7 February, which was 11 days after you announced the suspension of the agency’s funding, based on allegations made by Israel. Minister, did you speak to Mr Lazzarini before you announced the suspension of funding to UNRWA?

Senator Wong: First, I’m going to take issue with the very inflammatory language that you’ve just used. I want to place on record my deep concern at the way in which some in this debate—I include some members of the coalition and some members of the Greens—are seeking to engage in what is a very difficult discussion in ways which are inflammatory, often relying on untruths and—

Senator FARUQI: Is it untrue that almost 30,000 Palestinians have been killed?

Senator Wong: Excuse me. I listened to you politely.

CHAIR: Senator Faruqi, you know the rules. Please let the minister finish.

Senator Wong: I listened to you with courtesy. I’d ask that you extend the same to me. The fact is that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza; I have said that. I have also said, as has the Prime Minister, that we mourn every innocent life, Palestinian and Israeli, that has been lost. I think we all know that this is a conflict which is weighing heavily on people in Australia. People take different views. One of the things that really struck me when I went to the Middle East is how important it is that we remember our common humanity in the midst of disagreement and conflict and that we maintain respect for one another. People come to this country because they want to live in a country that is peaceful, tolerant and respectful. I would say that all of us who have the privilege of elected office have an obligation to ensure that the distress in our community does not turn to hatred. Senator, the concern that I have is that some of your language and your colleagues’ language appears to be designed, as is Peter Dutton’s at times, to whip up anger—

Senator FARUQI: Minister, as you know, I have limited time. I have asked you a question.

Senator Wong: I’m—

Senator FARUQI: Would you respond to my question, please.

CHAIR: Senators, please. We know—

Senator FARUQI: Chair, I have asked a question. I’d be grateful if the minister would answer that question.

CHAIR: Senator Faruqi, I won’t be cutting you short, but just allow the minister to finish and we’ll get through what we need to get through.

Senator Wong: I think it is deeply regrettable that, whilst the government is seeking to ensure that the distress in our community does not turn to hatred, we see particular members of parliament who are looking to use this crisis to whip up anger, presumably for votes.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, don’t you dare accuse me of whipping up anger and compare me to the people who actually—

CHAIR: Order!

Senator Wong: Senator—

CHAIR: I’m sorry, Minister. Can we all cool the temperature a little bit, please?

Senator Wong: I’m happy to.

CHAIR: Senator, please allow the minister to conclude, and we’ll quickly come back to your questions.

Senator Wong: I would say, Senator Faruqi, even in that question and in many questions that you have asked, you persist in making—

Senator FARUQI: Telling the truth?

Senator Wong: inflammatory assertions which are not true.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, did you speak to Mr Lazzarini—

Senator Wong: I would remind you—

Senator FARUQI: before you made an announcement to suspend funding? I’m sorry. That’s my question. Could you please answer that question.

CHAIR: You just might have to wait for that question until the minister concludes her answer to your first question.

Senator Wong: Thank you.

Senator FARUQI: That is my first question.

Senator Wong: There was a lot—

CHAIR: We’ll come to it.

Senator Wong: Senator Faruqi, you made a lot of loaded assertions and I’m entitled to respond to them. I would remind you that we have seen incidents in our community which have included the laying of false corpses outside of MPs’ offices, threatening emails and phone calls to staff in electorate offices, weaponising the imagery of deceased children, and the spraying of fake blood on shop fronts of electorate offices, and we have staff who have been intimidated and threatened. What I would say to you is that your party has a responsibility, as all of us do, to not legitimise that by using inflammatory language and perpetuating untruths, because that is what you were—

Senator FARUQI: Telling the truth is not inflammatory language.

Senator Wong: You are perpetuating an untruth.

Senator FARUQI: No-one is perpetuating untruths.

Senator Wong: You are—

Senator FARUQI: Which untruths?

Senator Wong: because you are asserting that we have cut funding to UNRWA.

Senator FARUQI: You have suspended funding to UNRWA; that is what I have asserted.

Senator Wong: I have doubled funding to UNRWA. We have suspended, along with many other partners, in the face of serious allegations which UNRWA itself described as serious. There are two truths in relation to UNRWA. The first is that it is a critical organisation which is—

Senator FARUQI: I’m sorry, Minister. Please answer the question. You’ve been talking—

CHAIR: Senator Faruqi.

Senator FARUQI: without answering the question for the last 10 minutes.

CHAIR: Minister, have you concluded your answer?

Senator Wong: I’m trying to conclude my answer.

Senator FARUQI: Did you speak to Mr Lazzarini before you announced the suspension of UNRWA funding? That’s my question.

CHAIR: Is that your only question or do you have more?

Senator FARUQI: I’ve got a few more.

Senator Wong: We have doubled UNRWA funding. Senator Faruqi, in your accusations, using loaded language, you never acknowledge that we have doubled core funding. The only funding that has been suspended—and I was very transparent about that—was funding for the Flash Appeal. Ms Delaney has gone to that point. We have also increased humanitarian funding to the region through other means. There are two points about UNRWA, one being that it is critical and the second being that serious allegations were made. I made the decision, as minister, and I have been upfront about it, in relation to that component of the funding—which is a fraction, let us be clear, of the funding that we are providing to UNRWA and the region—that I, along with other colleagues, would pause, pending consideration of how UNRWA would deal with those allegations. UNRWA has appropriately put in place an internal investigation, which Senator Green has asked about. There is also a UN investigation, review or inquiry—I can’t recall the term—which Catherine Colonna, the former French minister, is heading. We look forward to international partners, including Australia, having the confidence to enable further funding to flow to an organisation which I do regard as critical for the wellbeing and welfare of Palestinians.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, you’re refusing to answer my question. I take it that’s a no. You’re refusing to answer my question and are trying to divert attention by making false accusations about the Greens and me.

Senator Wong: Senator—

Senator FARUQI: Did you speak to Mr Lazzarini before you suspended the funding to UNRWA?

Senator Wong: I spoke to Mr Lazzarini prior to the allegations becoming public, when I was in Israel—

Senator FARUQI: Before you suspended funding.

Senator Wong: I suspended the funding after the allegations were raised with me and, at that point, I knew what Mr Lazzarini’s public response was. We then sought a call and I have spoken to him since, as I have with others, about this issue.

Senator FARUQI: Minister Wong, it has now been widely reported that the so-called six-page dossier supplied by the State of Israel which alleges UNRWA staff involvement contains no evidence of the claim. Minister, do you have the dossier? Have you seen it?

Senator Wong: No, I do not. I have asked Israel, through my officials, for the information on which they were relying when that story appeared in the international media, and I would hope that the Israeli government would ensure that its friends and partners were provided with that information.

Senator FARUQI: Has that information been provided to you?

Senator Wong: Not as yet.

Senator FARUQI: Not yet.

Senator Wong: Not as yet.

Senator FARUQI: So you’ve made a decision on suspending UNRWA’s funding without a single piece of evidence of the claims that Israel has made. We have just heard from Mr Innes-Brown that there have been previous claims which have been exaggerated—

Senator Wong: That’s true.

Senator FARUQI: and some of them have been false. Based on all of that, don’t you think it is irresponsible for a government to suspend funding for a main UN agency? You have said that reports from the UN say that 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are starving and a million are at the risk of starvation. Is it not irresponsible to just suspend funding without even talking to the chief of the agency and without having a shred of evidence? Is this how you make decisions: without any evidence and without speaking to the people who are being impacted? That is highly irresponsible and reckless. Is this the pattern of how your decisions are made?

Senator Wong: No, I don’t agree with your multiple characterisations. I think there are two things—

Senator FARUQI: But you have just said that you didn’t speak to Mr Lazzarini.

CHAIR: Senator—

Senator FARUQI: You have said that you have no evidence from Israel.

Senator Wong: Could we speak with some courtesy?

CHAIR: Thank you, everyone.

Senator Wong: Could I have some courtesy? I extended courtesy to Senator Faruqi.

CHAIR: The minister has a right to reply to—

Senator FARUQI: I think you’re the one who is discourteous, not me.

CHAIR: Senator, come on.

Senator Wong: Senator, I listened to a very long question with a lot of false accusations, or erroneous accusations.

CHAIR: Minister, you have the call.

Senator Wong: I would make a few points. Mr Lazzarini sacked a number of his staff. He put out a statement which, to my recollection, said that serious allegations were to be investigated or considered by UNRWA. I would say to you that UNRWA itself demonstrated concern about the actions. Also, it would be nice at some point, Senator, if you could acknowledge that this Labor government has doubled funding to UNRWA. As yet, I have never heard you say that.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, the $20 million that you say you have funded—

Senator Wong: ‘You say.’

Senator FARUQI: If you need my approval or appreciation for your doing that, sure, great. But $20 million was the funding that the government gave UNRWA in 2014, so that is 10 years ago, and you brought it back just to that. In real terms, the funding is still less than it used to be 10 years ago—

Senator Wong: Sure.

Senator FARUQI: and, basically, at this point in time, when people are starving and there is this genocide that Israel is committing against Palestinians, we need to give more funding and not suspend it and not bring it back to what it was 10 years ago.

CHAIR: Is there a question in there?

Senator FARUQI: There was a question, but it’s not been answered, really.

Senator Wong: I’m not sure what the question was in that, but I’m happy to respond. The first thing is—

Senator FARUQI: If you’d like me to repeat the question—


Senator FARUQI: I can repeat the question, Minister.

CHAIR: No, I don’t need you to repeat the question. I thought there was a new question or a preamble to a question, but I’m sure the minister is fully aware of your original question.

Senator Wong: I would like Australia to be in a position to have the confidence to provide additional funding, including through UNRWA, because I have no doubt that the humanitarian need is dire. You will have heard me, I think, in the Senate, in answer to questions from the coalition, saying that 400,000 people are starving, a million are on the brink of starvation and 1.7 million are sheltering in UNRWA facilities. That is why we have increased the core funding; that is why I announced the additional funding for the flash appeal; and that is why we have provided in excess of $40 million, additional, to the region, including to UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Senator, I hope that you would see that we are trying to help. But you asked the question about irresponsibility. I don’t think the person in this position can reasonably say to the Australian people, ‘I have been confronted with or informed of allegations of participation in a heinous terrorist attack, including by employees of an organisation,’ and simply continue to fund without gaining assurance. I don’t think that is responsible. I wish that we were in a different position, and I hope that the international community can, through these processes, be given the confidence to continue to support UNRWA. That is my position. I know that it is not the coalition’s position—well, some—but that is my position and the government’s position.

Senator FARUQI: Minister, I have listened carefully to what you have said. From what I understand, you have no evidence of Israel’s claims and you did not speak to the chief of UNRWA before you made the decision to suspend the funding. Surely, there’s a duty to actually verify the claims before taking such serious action, which puts hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people under further punishment and in further horrific circumstances. You have said and the department staff have said that UNRWA acted swiftly and in accordance with its obligations; they suspended staff and terminated staff who were named by Israel, even without proof. From what I’ve read, they were fearful that, if they didn’t do that, exactly what you have done would happen, and it has happened, nonetheless. The investigation is going on, but it could take months. Given that it’s an active war zone, Minister, what else would it take to reinstate UNRWA funding and how long will it take, given that UNRWA has said that, by the end of February, if funding is not restored, there will be a collapse not just in Gaza but in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, where forcibly displaced people are taking refuge? What would it take to restore that funding, and why aren’t you doing it right now?

Senator Wong: Again, many questions. In terms of my duties, my duty first, as a minister of the Crown, is to make a judgement about whether I continue to fund an organisation when such serious allegations have been not only raised but also countenanced and action taken by the organisation itself. I’m a supporter of development assistance. I have argued long and hard for additional aid in the budget, and the government has provided additional development assistance in our budgets. If I am going to continue to do that, including to seek to provide further funding to UNRWA and others in the region, I have to be able to say to this committee, to the parliament and to the Australian people that I have confidence in the organisations and their processes that we are funding. That is my duty. Like you, I am worried. I would make the point to you that we have already provided our core funding for this financial year. I know that other partners are considering their core funding for this financial year. The $6 million from Australia is not the critical amount, and many other partners suspended their funding for the same reason. I’ve spoken again to Mr Lazzarini; I’ve spoken to Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator; I’ve spoken to other partners. A lot of action is being taken to try to resolve this matter as quickly as is possible.

CHAIR: On that note, we’re going to break for morning tea.

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