Senator Michael Ronaldson – Estimates questions about Australian aid to Palestine

photo of Michael Ronaldson
May 31, 2012

Questioned links between Australian aid recipients and proscribed terrorist organisations, BDS-affiliated organisations and UNRWA.

Senator RONALDSON: Good afternoon, Minister. Minister, you are aware of matters involving the Israel Law Centre, World Vision and AusAID, so I do not need to go through the background to that, do I? Can I just ask you a question initially just so that we are absolutely clear. The PFLP is a proscribed terrorist organisation of Australia, isn’t it?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Yes.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Do we agree that the UAWC, which of course is the subject of these discussions, is the PFLP’s agricultural organisation?

 

Senator Bob Carr: No, we don’t.

Whole interaction with Senator Bob Carr (Minister for Foreign Affairs), Mr Peter Baxter (Director General, AusAID) and Mr Ewen McDonald (Deputy Director General, AusAID) with additional questions from Senator Helen Kroger during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator RONALDSON: Good afternoon, Minister. Minister, you are aware of matters involving the Israel Law Centre, World Vision and AusAID, so I do not need to go through the background to that, do I? Can I just ask you a question initially just so that we are absolutely clear. The PFLP is a proscribed terrorist organisation of Australia, isn’t it?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Yes.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Do we agree that the UAWC, which of course is the subject of these discussions, is the PFLP’s agricultural organisation?

 

Senator Bob Carr: No, we don’t.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You don’t?

 

Senator Bob Carr: No.

 

Senator RONALDSON: On what basis do you say they are not?

 

Senator Bob Carr: It is important to underline this: the organisation we are talking about—we are talking about the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, are we?

 

Senator RONALDSON: Yes.

 

Senator Bob Carr: Well, I just find it striking that the government of Israel itself does not consider the UAWC to be a terrorist entity. That is the government of Israel.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I did not ask you that; I asked you whether you agree that the PFLP agricultural organisation is the UAWC. You disagree with that, do you?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I can talk about the UAWC as a separate entity. I do not agree that it is an arm of the body you have nominated. That is where we are at odds.

 

Senator RONALDSON: In fact, in your letter to me on 10 May, after my letter to you on 24 May, you said that there are unsubstantiated claims that the UAWC had links to the proscribed terrorist organisation. Is that right?

 

Senator Bob Carr: That is true. In fact, I can be stronger. There are no constitutional or practical elements of the UAWC’s operations that suggest it is an agency or instrumentality of PFLP.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Are you aware that the US government aid agency, USAID, identified the UAWC as the agricultural arm of the PFLP via the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project back in May 1993?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I am advised that that is incorrect.

 

Senator RONALDSON: It is incorrect?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Yes.

 

Senator RONALDSON: What is incorrect?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Your statement.

 

Senator RONALDSON: What, that the democratic institutions support project indicated that the agricultural organisation—is incorrect, you are saying?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Yes.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Okay. Have you seen that report, Minister?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I can provide a very, very detailed answer to this.

 

Senator RONALDSON: No, Minister, I am asking you: have you seen the report?

 

Senator Bob Carr: The USAID has confirmed that the report quoted by Shurat HaDin as evidence that the UAWC was established by the PFLP, entitled Palestinian institutional configurations and so on—

 

Senator RONALDSON: Yes.

 

Senator Bob Carr: ‘does not reflect the views or interpretations of USAID or of the US government, including with regards to the relationship between the UAWC and the PFLP.’

 

Senator RONALDSON: Can you table that, please?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Happy to.

 

Senator RONALDSON: What was the date of that letter?

 

Mr Baxter : That is information provided to us directly by USAID in the course of AusAID’s examination of the material put forward by Shurat HaDin. It is information provided to us by USAID in the period since 11 April this year.

 

Senator Bob Carr: Further—

 

Senator RONALDSON: When did you ask for that information?

 

Mr Baxter : As a result of our correspondence with Shurat HaDin, and Shurat HaDin providing us with a dossier of information on 11 April, we conducted an examination of that material, which included the document that you referred to. So we asked USAID what the status of that document was and, as the minister has read out, they made it clear to us that it did not reflect the views of USAID or the US government and they were happy to give us that advice in writing.

 

Senator RONALDSON: This was done after the decision by AusAID and World Vision to say that they had fully investigated this matter. I think that was done by way of a press release on about 2 March, wasn’t it?

 

Mr Baxter : There have been a couple of phases to this issue. The first element was we received a letter on 15 February from Shurat HaDin which made some general allegations of links between the UAWC and the PFLP but provided no evidence. We conducted an investigation and concluded that there was not evidence of such links. We wrote back to Shurat HaDin and said if they had further material they should give it to us. They did provide further material in April and we have conducted a thorough examination of that material as well.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I will talk about that soon. What inquiries were made during that first phase?

 

Mr Baxter : The first thing we did was put a series of specific questions to World Vision Australia to respond to the allegations that were made by Shurat HaDin. We also conducted some investigations of our own by contacting the relevant authorities within the Australian government to seek information from them on the allegations by Shurat HaDin. It was a combination of investigations in country and with the relevant authorities in Australia, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is responsible for advising the government on people or organisations that are proscribed under relevant legislation. We also spoke to ASIO and were able to satisfy ourselves that there was no basis for the allegations that had been made in February by Shurat HaDin.

 

Senator RONALDSON: So ASIO were asked to look at this matter?

 

Mr Baxter : That is right.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Were the Australian Government Solicitor asked to look at it?

 

Mr Baxter : In phase 1, it was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and ASIO.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I understand that it was World Vision that actually wrote and said that it had finished its investigation, wasn’t it?

 

Mr Baxter : World Vision presented AusAID with a detailed report on the allegations and they wrote to AusAID confirming that and confirming their compliance with the antiterrorism provisions contained in the head of agreement between World Vision and AusAID. Then on 28 February an AusAID officer wrote to Shurat HaDin advising them that we had conducted a detailed investigation into the claims outlined in the letter of 15 February but that we had found no evidence of their violation of the UN Charter act.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Did that letter refer to inquiries being made on the back of due diligence of public registers which are available?

 

Mr Baxter : I do not have the details of that letter with me, but we certainly followed up the letter with a telephone call to Shurat HaDin to ensure that they had received our advice and to make it clear that AusAID would consider any evidence that Shurat HaDin possessed to support its allegations.

 

Senator RONALDSON: This was AusAID as opposed to World Vision?

 

Mr Baxter : That is right. We were communicating directly with Shurat HaDin at the end of February.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Did the AusAID letter say that this was based on due diligence of public registers which are available?

 

Mr Baxter : It advised that we had conducted a detailed investigation into the claims—

 

Senator RONALDSON: I know it is said you had had a detailed investigation, but I am more interested in—

 

Mr Baxter : I do not have the letter with me. I would have to take it on notice.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I am interested in how detailed it was. I am a bit surprised you do not have that letter, quite frankly. Does anybody else at the table have a copy of it?

 

Mr Baxter : No. I do not think it is surprising because the nature of the allegations made by Shurat HaDin were general. There was no evidence provided at the time that they gave the letter to us on 15 February. There was not a supporting annexe of documents or any information at all apart from the allegations. So we conducted what we believe was a thorough investigation given that there was no particular evidence put forward to support the accusations. Once we had completed that, we then informed Shurat HaDin that we had done so.

 

Senator KROGER: Did that investigation include the board of directors?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Yes, it did.

 

Senator KROGER: Who is the president of the UAWC board of directors?

 

Senator Bob Carr: In February 2012, after Shurat HaDin had first raised its allegations against the UAWC, even though Shurat HaDin had made no allegations regarding the UAWC board AusAID checked the list of current UAWC board members provided by World Vision and found that none of those individuals were on DFAT’s consolidated list of proscribed individuals under the UN Charter act. But what I find to be the killer fact here is that the government of Israel itself does not consider UAWC to be a terrorist entity. It is not proscribed by the government of Israel. In fact, since 1996, UAWC has been registered as a not-for-profit organisation with the Israeli Ministry of Justice. The registration was most recently renewed on 5 March 2012. One would think that if this organisation had been compromised in the way the senator has suggested that would have been brought to the attention of the government of Israel. The government of Israel has made a decision that this organisation will not be proscribed and, moreover, will be allowed to continue to be registered as a not-for-profit organisation by the Israeli Ministry of Justice.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Minister, your evidence before was that the claims did not initially make allegations against the board membership but that you did the investigation on the back of further information; is that what you said?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I would like a reply by you to me sharing with the committee the fact that Israel does not think this a tainted organisation.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Guess what? I ask the questions and you answer them. I take it back to your statement before that you made these inquiries about board representation in the second phase of the inquiry. Is that what you told us?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I said that in February 2012—whether you call it the second phase or the first phase or the 15th phase—after Shurat HaDin had first raised its allegations, even though it had made no allegations regarding the board, AusAID checked the list of current UAWC board members provided by World Vision and found that none of those individuals were on DFAT’s consolidated list of proscribed individuals under the UN Charter act.

 

Senator KROGER: Who is the president of the UAWC board?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I am reporting what AusAID did. If you want to challenge that, I would be interested to see—

 

Senator KROGER: I am asking you: who is the president of the board?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I cannot tell you who the president of the board is, but I am reporting what AusAID did.

 

Senator KROGER: Mr McDonald, can you help the minister and advise us of who the president of the board is?

 

Mr McDonald : In the claims that were put forward by Shurat HaDin, there was a specific claim in relation to the president of UAWC at the time. That person who was claimed to be president is not the president at the moment. The person that Shurat HaDin had indicated was the president was Bashir al-Kheiri. He is no longer the president of the UAWC board.

 

Senator KROGER: When was he the president?

 

Mr McDonald : He was the president from 2008 to 2011, and he is no longer the president of the board.

 

Senator KROGER: That is interesting. Do we know who Mr Bashir al Kheiri is?

 

Mr McDonald : Mr Bashir al Kheiri is not listed as proscribed under the UN charter act and UAWC is not listed as a proscribed entity under the UN charter act.

 

Senator KROGER: Let us go to this for a minute.

 

Senator Bob Carr: And he is not proscribed by the government of Israel.

 

Senator KROGER: He is a senior member of PFLP. He has a long history of arrest and jail time in Israel for terrorist involvement. This is the man who has been president of this organisation.

 

Mr McDonald : The original allegation by Shurat HaDin was an original set of claims that UAWC had breached the UN charter because of its association with PFLP. Under the UN charter, for there to be a breach there has to be either direct or indirect assets flowing to a proscribed organisation. That is not the case in relation to this matter. The earlier allegation was a question that was raised earlier in relation to the US report. We followed that claim up, which was the first allegation that there had been a breach. The USAID, on behalf of the US government, responded to that allegation, which was not supported by the evidence or information that had been put forward by Shurat HaDin. The second allegation was that the UAWC is controlled by senior PFLP operatives. Through due diligence processes and financial processes that we have in place, that was also not proved. It makes its assets available to the PFLP—

 

Senator RONALDSON: Mr McDonald, come on. You are splitting hairs now. You are not seriously suggesting that there is no link here. With the matters raised by Senator Kroger, you are not seriously telling this committee that there are not links between the PFLP and this organisation. You have acknowledged that this gentleman was president of the organisation for two years. And you are saying that there is no link?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Why isn’t it proscribed by the government of Israel?

 

Senator RONALDSON: And I have a question for you, Minister.

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson has asked a question. Could we have an answer, please.

 

Mr Baxter : There were a specific set of allegations made by Shurat HaDin that related to alleged breaches of the UN charter act. We investigated those allegations of breaches of the UN charter act and there was no evidence found that the UN charter act had been breached. The relationship between the Australian government and the UAWC goes back to 2005, when the—

 

Senator Bob Carr: 2005? That is interesting. That would seem to be a significant date. It started then.

 

Mr Baxter : program was—

 

Senator RONALDSON: It started well before then, my friend—well before then.

 

Mr Baxter : reviewed and renewed in 2007 under the previous government and continued under the current government.

 

Senator Bob Carr: It was renewed under the previous government. Very interesting.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I am sure. I will get back to you in a second, Minister. Mr McDonald, you are saying that these allegations were unrelated to linkages. The minister—

 

Mr McDonald : I did not say that.

 

Senator RONALDSON: They were in relation to financial matters.

 

Mr McDonald : The claims that were put forward by Shurat HaDin to support their claims that there had been a breach of the UN charter were four-fold. I was reading those when you interrupted me. That is what I was talking about: the allegations that were made by Shurat HaDin to support their claim that there has been a breach of the UN charter act by UAWC, World Vision or AusAID. My answer to that was that the evidence or information put forward has been thoroughly checked out by a whole range of government agencies that Mr Baxter talked about earlier and there is no evidence to support that there has been a breach of the UN charter act.

 

Senator RONALDSON: If someone said that the UAWC had no links to the PFLP—the proscribed terrorist organisation—in light of the matters raised by Senator Kroger, would you agree or disagree with that?

 

Mr McDonald : In relation to that question, this matter is about whether there is a breach of the UN charter.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I have asked you a question.

 

Senator KROGER: I do not think that it is about whether there has been a breach of the UN charter.

 

CHAIR: Senator Kroger, you will get your chance to ask questions. Senator Ronaldson has asked a question. The officers are attempting to answer it.

 

Mr McDonald : It is important to clarify that in relation to any links under the UN charter act, those links have to be a result of direct or indirect assets flowing to a terrorist organisation. As I have said earlier, the evidence shows that that is not the case.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Minister, I now want to go back to you. You alleged that there were no allegations regarding the board made initially by Shurat HaDin. That is incorrect. I take you to page 2 of the letter from Shurat HaDin to World Vision dated 15 February. In the second paragraph, it says:

The PLFP’s funding is shared and distributed amongst its family of institutions, including the UAWC. The PLFP is the controlling hand of the UAWC and the PLFP members form the executive of the organisation.

That information that you provided to the Senate was clearly wrong.

 

CHAIR: Do you have any response to the comment from Senator Ronaldson, Minister?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I stand by my previous answer and repeat that the government of Israel does not agree with that. The government of Israel has not proscribed this organisation.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You stand by your previous statement that there were no allegations raised on 15 February about board members? I have clearly told where you are wrong. Are you prepared to accept that you have made a mistake?

 

Senator Bob Carr: You have not established that case.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I have not?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I would like to help you, Senator. I am striving to understand your case.

 

Senator RONALDSON: The letter says that the PFLP members form the executive of the organisation. You are suggesting to the Senate that that is not an allegation made regarding the board. I do not think that you could possibly be serious.

 

Senator Bob Carr: I never heard a response to my reply that the government of Israel does not agree with your position.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You can rabbit on about that until the cows come home, but the simple fact is that you made an allegation—

 

Senator Bob Carr: Where is the statement from Tel Aviv?

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson and Minister Carr, this could go on all afternoon or we could wind it up in a civilised manner. Senator Kroger, do you have any further questions?

 

Senator KROGER: Yes, thank you, Chair. We have heard all morning, Mr Baxter, about the attention to governance of all organisations, multilateral and bilateral. We are talking about Australia’s approach to this, not the approach of the state of Israel. We are talking about our governance procedures and processes over this. We know that members of this board are members of the PFLP—we know that.

 

CHAIR: Do you have a question, Senator Kroger?

 

Senator KROGER: I am coming to the question. What do you think Australia people would think—regardless of the interpretation is whether it breaches the UN charter or not—if known terrorists who have been locked up and jailed for terrorist activities are on the board? They are members of PLFP and members of this board. Isn’t this about our due diligence and our governance practices and integrity?

 

Mr Baxter : I will give you an explanation about our due diligence processes for funding World Vision and the way in which World Vision relates to UAWC. The UAWC has to provide detailed quarterly cash flow projections broken down by month. World Vision then provide monthly funds based on the approved cash flow. The UAWC must provide a detailed monthly financial acquittal report and all supporting transaction documentation for the previous month by the fourth of that month before World Vision releases the next month’s funding on the fifth. Deductions can be made for unspent funding or interest earnt from prior months. All purchases over US$1,000 need to go through a financial review committee and any purchases over US$10,000 must go to tender. World Vision’s financial officer and project manager are part of the financial review committee. All of the contracts related to staff assigned to the project must be approved by World Vision and monthly labour distribution reports are also provided. World Vision can stop or cancel payments under these arrangements if any of the project’s purchases or assets are misappropriated. Furthermore, in the event of any misappropriation of funds, World Vision has the right to demand reimbursement of all aid granted under the financial arrangements. AusAID also makes physical visits to the projects that UAWC are putting in place to ensure that the money is being spent for the purposes for which it was given. We have also looked at the financial management records of the relationship between World Vision and UAWC and we are satisfied that all of the funding that we have provided has been used for the purposes for which it was given.

 

Senator KROGER: Firstly, if a white-collar criminal was president of an overseas board of an entity which was associated with another entity, would that play into to our considerations of whether we would deal with that entity through the other one?

 

Mr Baxter : It is not a question I can answer. You asked about due diligence. We are very confident that our due diligence processes for this funding are appropriate and ones that the Australian public can have confidence in.

 

Senator KROGER: Notwithstanding the fact that we have known terrorists on a board. You talked about the corporate governance structure. How many boards does the UAWC have?

 

Mr Baxter : I do not know. I would have to take that on notice.

 

Senator KROGER: I am mortified that you would need to take that on notice, because clearly this was an issue that you knew was going to be brought up today. Are you aware that they have two separate boards?

 

Mr Baxter : My staff may be.

 

Mr McDonald : Yes.

 

Senator KROGER: You are aware that they have two separate boards?

 

Mr McDonald : Yes.

 

Senator KROGER: Could you explain why they have two separate boards?

 

Mr McDonald : I cannot explain why they have two separate boards, but I can explain that we have looked at all members of that board in relation to whether they are listed under the UN charter act, and they are not.

 

Senator KROGER: So you have investigated the division of responsibilities of those boards?

 

Mr McDonald : The work that is currently provided by UAWC in relation to the funding provided by AusAID is in Gaza.

 

Senator KROGER: It does not help us here today, does it? It is a most unusual structure by any imagination to have two separate boards, so it does beg the question what the different responsibilities are, what the different financial arrangements are, what the assets are and how the responsibilities are divvied up. May I ask Mr Baxter and put on the record today: could AusAID formally review the protocol in relation to considering organisations that have known convicted criminals and, in this case, terrorists associated with their boards? Would you please come back to us with a review of that protocol?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Madam Chair, the UAWC, with an annual budget of close to US$9 million, works with government agencies and governments that include Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office. It has received support from a number of like-minded donor governments and international aid organisations including Oxfam Great Britain, Oxfam Italy, Oxfam Belgium, UNDP, Norwegian People’s Aid, FAO, the Japanese government, the government of the Netherlands, the European Union, Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children. World Vision’s work with UAWC—and this should not be lost sight of—is directed at agricultural development in Gaza, an area that is experiencing chronic food shortages. AusAID has provided $5 million to World Vision Australia under two phases of a program since 2005. Of this amount $1.6 million has been spent by the UAWC. The current phase is approved by former Foreign Minister Downer. A review commenced in 2007. But current programs include the funding of plant and seedling nurseries aimed at increasing the food security and economic capacity of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, particularly women. Palestinians in Gaza cannot get plants and seedlings. This project is directly benefiting up to 1,180 poor and vulnerable households—a total of 8,260 individuals. And, talking about the organisation we have been discussing, it is not considered a terrorist organisation by the government of Israel.

 

Senator KROGER: So, Minister, you will be able to tell us whether the United States of America direct funds through them, direct US aid through them?

 

Senator Bob Carr: How is that relevant to anything we do?

 

Senator KROGER: Quite relevant.

 

Senator Bob Carr: Are you saying our aid budget has got to be filtered through the United States?

 

Senator KROGER: No. I just asked you about US aid directed funds.

 

Senator Bob Carr: We are the government of Australia, Senator.

 

Senator KROGER: That is what I have been trying to point out to you.

 

Senator Bob Carr: We run, proudly, an aid program. We do not filter it past any other government.

 

Senator KROGER: Minister, I just asked you a question.

 

Senator Bob Carr: That is a most remarkable suggestion.

 

Senator KROGER: Minister, I asked you a question.

 

Senator Bob Carr: The implications of that are extraordinary.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Stop being so pompous and just answer the question!

 

Senator KROGER: If we want a dissertation from you, we will go outside.

 

CHAIR: Order!

 

Senator RONALDSON: Don’t be a pompous fool.

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, that is not helpful. I understand Senator Kroger has now got two questions on notice to AusAID, which I am sure they will take on notice and respond to. We have been discussing this issue for approximately 35 minutes. I think we have given it a good going over. I am conscious there are other questions about other areas of the AusAID portfolio.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I have not finished my questions. I will not be long, but I have not finished.

 

CHAIR: I suggest you have one or two more questions, then we need to move on.

 

Senator RONALDSON: The first thing is that I will seek to table the democratic institutions support project. I presume there will be no objection to that, so I do table that.

 

CHAIR: That is up to the committee, Senator Ronaldson. Perhaps you will show us what it is.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Can I seek leave? It has been referred to.

 

CHAIR: Of course.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Thank you, Chair. Can I be sure, please, Mr McDonald or Mr Baxter, that you are going to provide me with the letter to Shurat HaDin at the end of phase 1. Is that right?

 

Mr Baxter : I am happy to table that letter, Senator.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Can you also provide on notice for me all organisations who provided written input into the phase 1 inquiry? I suppose I will have the answer to that question when I get that letter. It is alleged in the letter from Shurat HaDin to the assistant director-general on 22 March that:

On 17 February 2012 World Vision publicly announced that it was taking “extremely seriously” our allegations that the UAWC was an arm of the proscribed terrorist group the PFLP and were undertaking an investigation.

Yet, only a week later, World Vision wrote informing us that it had concluded its investigation and that it had “adequately discharged [its] obligations under relevant Australian laws.” It indicated this despite admitting that its vetting was based merely “on due diligence of public registers which are available” to it. Only then, after informing us that its investigation was already concluded, did World Vision ask us—

that may well be AusAID—

for our evidence of the link between the UAWC and the PFLP.

On 2 March 2012, a few days after we received World Vision letter requesting evidence, without having received that evidence and based solely on an irrelevant search of registers of not-for-profit organisations, World Vision publicly announced that it had conducted an “extensive investigation”, that Shurat HaDin’s allegations were “unfounded” and that it was resuming its funding of the UAWC.

Is that an accurate assessment of the situation?

 

Mr McDonald : It might be helpful to advise you of the vetting process that AusAID and World Vision go through in relation to these matters. Since 2005, UWAC has been formally vetted by World Vision.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I did ask you quite a simple question: is the content of that letter from Shurat HaDin an accurate reflection the history of this matter?

 

Mr McDonald : Senator, if you could table that letter I could look at it.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Absolutely. This is, of course, a letter to your organisation—

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, they have indicated that they have not got a copy of it. Would you like to table that letter and at the same time is there another document over there that we are tabling?

 

Mr Baxter : No, Senator. I made comments earlier that I stand by in terms of the nature of the investigation that we undertook following the receipt of the letter from Shurat HaDin on 15 February.

 

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Baxter.

 

Senator RONALDSON: The copy is not clean. It does have my notes on it. If I can get another copy—though I am not entirely sure why I need to table a letter written by the department—

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, you have been a senator for a long time. You know that tabling a document ensures that we are at least seeing the document in its written form and it gives it some validity. Otherwise we do not know what you are reading from.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Chair, would you accept my undertaking that I will provide a clean copy of that letter?

 

CHAIR: Yes, as long as you accept the undertaking that the officers can only respond on the basis of something that you have found.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I actually will not be asking any more questions on that. If there are no more questions, do you want me to get a clean copy?

 

Mr Baxter : We will be fine.

 

CHAIR: Are we finished with this issue now?

 

Senator KROGER: One more question, Chair. Mr Baxter, is it not possible, given the processes of AusAID, for you to find an organisation that does not have a convicted terrorist on its board?

 

Mr Baxter : As I pointed out in an earlier answer, this organisation has received funding from successive Australian governments going back to 2005.

 

Senator KROGER: That was not my question.

 

Senator Bob Carr: Alexander Downer, no less.

 

Senator KROGER: It was not my question. Is there no other organisation?

 

Mr Baxter : We believe that the work that the UAWC is doing, as the minister has pointed out, is helping poor people who live in the Palestinian territories.

 

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Baxter. Thank you, Senator Kroger. Thank you, Senator Ronaldson. I do not think we can get any further information out of this examination.

 

Senator RONALDSON: In relation to the minister’s investigation, I just want to ask where the Federal Police investigation is at and ask why that was required when the evidence we have heard today is that there was a full and thorough investigation of this matter? What further information did you receive which would have triggered the involvement of the Federal Police? I want confirmation that the Bashir al-Kheiri we referred to has spent time in jail after being convicted of terrorism.

 

Senator Bob Carr: I believe the Federal Police completed their review of all the material and the advice from the Australian Federal Police is that it would not accept this matter for further investigation. I find that encouraging.

 

Senator RONALDSON: That has been publicly released, Minister, and I missed it? Or it has not been released yet?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I am not sure if it has been released, but I am happy to put that on the record here.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You have been in the Jewish News and other press regarding this matter, saying there would be a full and thorough investigation. I presume you would be saying a bit more than just a comment at Senate estimates.

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, I think we will take that as a conclusion to the debate. Are there any further areas of examination in program 1.3?

 

Senator RONALDSON: I do have something. The minister will be acutely aware of the BDS issue.

 

Senator Bob Carr: Sorry—what issue?

 

Senator RONALDSON: The long-running BDS campaign that has been run against Israel. Have there been some concerns raised about AusAID’s partnerships with NGOs that are partnering organisations in the Palestinian territories that actually support the BDS against the state of Israel? For example, Union Aid Abroad—APHEDA and CARE Australia fund the Ma’an Development Centre, which is an organisation that actively advocates for and provides the materials in support of the BDS. World Vision provides funding to the UAWC, which supports the BDS. Indeed, the UAWC contributed to the campaign for a British retailer cooperative group to boycott Israeli companies. I am just asking you: is it appropriate for AusAID to be providing funding to NGOs that partner with organisations that promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions program?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I am opposed to the program. AusAID funds humanitarian development work in the Palestinian territories, and we do so in ways that get aid to people who are poor and hungry. We do not fund anything that remotely suggests any sort of advocacy.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Do you provide cash to any of these organisations that would enable them to fund such programs through their resources?

 

Senator Bob Carr: No.

 

Senator RONALDSON: There is no cash provided to these organisations at all? Mr Baxter?

 

Senator Bob Carr: No. There is no Australian funding for political activity or political advocacy along the lines you have suggested.

 

Senator RONALDSON: The more surprising news would be if you told me that you were providing funding for political advocacy, but I am asking you whether indeed there are funds being directed into organisations that are providing support for the BDS program, and how that can possibly be appropriate funding.

 

Mr Baxter : We provide funding through APHEDA for development activities and for nothing else. Those development activities are agreed in advance, and they are reported against with our normal financial procedures to ensure that every dollar that is spent is accounted for against the project activities that we have agreed.

 

Senator RONALDSON: But do you acknowledge that the Ma’an Development Centre and APHEDA are organisations that are providing support to the BDS campaign?

 

Mr Baxter : If we found that any of the funding was being used for activities outside of the scope of works that we had agreed, we would cease funding.

 

Senator RONALDSON: But surely you are not telling the committee that just because you cannot say that your funding has not gone towards that campaign that it is still okay to fund an organisation whose resources are being used for the BDS campaign? That is nonsensical, surely.

 

Mr Baxter : We are funding an organisation that produces development outcomes in line with AusAID’s responsibilities.

 

Senator RONALDSON: No, you are funding an organisation that is part of the BDS campaign; that is what you are doing, are you not?

 

Mr Baxter : We are not funding the BDS campaign.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You are funding an organisation that is funding the BDS campaign. Will you at least acknowledge that?

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, we have traversed these issues many times before.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Well, I am trying to get an answer.

 

CHAIR: I think Mr Baxter has given an answer.

 

Senator RONALDSON: He has not given an answer. Can I have an answer, please, Mr Baxter? Or, Minister, can I have an answer from you?

 

Mr Baxter : Our funding for Palestinian NGOs is only for development activities.

 

Senator RONALDSON: So you are comfortable providing funding to organisations who fund the BDS campaign—yes or no?

 

Mr Baxter : I have given you my answer, Senator.

 

Senator RONALDSON: No you have not. Minister, what is your answer?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I stand by my previous answer, Madam Chair.

 

Senator RONALDSON: What was your previous answer, just remind me?

 

Senator Bob Carr: It is on the record.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I will ask you again.

 

Senator Bob Carr: It is on the record.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Minister, you are comfortable providing funding to organisations which in turn fund their BDS campaign. Is that the Australian government’s position?

 

Senator Bob Carr: Madam Chair, my answer is on the record.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Is it the Australian government’s position that you are comfortable doing that, Minister? I did not think I would get a response, my friend. I did not think I would get—

 

CHAIR: Senator Ronaldson, you have made your point. You got answers.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I wish.

 

CHAIR: If you do not like them that is what you have to put up with. Are we moving on from BDS? We have Senator Kroger on Afghanistan.

Continued

Senator RONALDSON: I understand that the Australian Multilateral Assessment report of March 2012 in its review of the UNRWA graded the organisation as strong and in alignment with Australia’s aid priorities and national interest. Is that is correct?

 

Mr Baxter : Yes.

 

Senator RONALDSON: You would be aware, no doubt, that there has been considerable angst in some quarters about the UNRWA funding?

 

Mr Baxter : In what sense, Senator?

 

Senator RONALDSON: Are you aware, for example, of the views of Mr Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, about this funding?

 

Mr Baxter : Broadly aware, Senator.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Who is right in relation to this UNRWA funding—Mr Danby, who says he does not support it and that it is time that the international community looked more closely at UNRWA and considered whether it should be restructured or dismantled and whether the substantial funds that go to it could be better spent, or are you right in providing nearly $90 million recently for it? Minister?

 

Senator Bob Carr: My starting point is this: we will not advance peace in the Middle East by keeping the people of Palestine trapped in poverty without schools and without medical care. This organisation is widely supported across the world. Australia is not alone in supporting it. The reviews that are being taken are of its effectiveness. The former foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, told me that he had inspected schools that are being funded by this organisation. I spoke to the head of the organisation. I talked to him about the curriculum in schools that are funded by it. He highlighted to me that while they were obliged to see that the curriculum of the host country was taught in the schools, they were nonetheless able to introduce teaching of the holocaust, and I thought that was a very fine thing and congratulated him on that initiative.

On the bottom line, you will not have a two-state solution. You will not have peace in the Middle East if the people of Palestine are sunk in poverty and left without health care, without sanitation and without education.

 

Senator RONALDSON: So Mr Danby is wrong, in your view?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I have not seen his comments, but I am expressing the view of the government, committed to funding Palestinian development through this organisation for the last five years.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I just told you what his comments were. Is he wrong?

 

Senator Bob Carr: I will not respond to your interpretation but I will outline why the government is funding aid to Palestinians.

 

Senator RONALDSON: ‘I don’t support it’ I do not think is an interpretation. ‘It is time that the international community looked more closely at the UNRWA and considered whether it should be restructured or dismantled.’ I do not think that is an interpretation.

 

Senator Bob Carr: I am not aware of moves in the UN to dismantle it. I am not aware of any moves in the international community to dismantle it—

 

Senator RONALDSON: That is what your colleague has suggested, so is he wrong?

 

Senator Bob Carr: or indeed of fundamental criticisms of it. In my visit to the UN in the last couple of months I was not alerted to criticisms of the way this body does its business.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I have just alerted you to your colleague’s criticisms. I take it from that you are saying he is wrong. Can I now turn please to—

 

CHAIR: Senator, we are shortly going to a tea break.

 

Senator RONALDSON: Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian writer and academic from Jordan, who now resides in the UK as a political refugee, discussed the shortcomings of the organisation in a recent piece. He said:

Since its establishment, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] has received billions in international aid, including more than $4 billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money. While UNRWA’s mission is to “relieve” and “support” the Palestinians, it has been doing exactly the opposite. It has been keeping Palestinians in pens as refugees and obstructing them from integrating and from normalizing their lives, all while UNRWA seems to be funnelling international aid money to whitewashing the terrorist organization Hamas, promoting the illegal Turkish flotilla—

 

CHAIR: We are going to go to a break and I will give the minister or Mr Baxter an opportunity to respond to Senator Ronaldson immediately on our return.

 

Proceedings suspended from 15:30 to 15:45

 

CHAIR: We will resume. Senator Ronaldson will complete his statement and question, we will get a response from the other side and then we will move on from this issue.

 

Senator RONALDSON: I was a bit rushed before the break. I will go through Mr Zahran’s writing again.

 

CHAIR: No, you will just start from where you finished.

 

Senator RONALDSON: He writes:

While UNRWA’s mission is to “relieve” and “support” the Palestinians, it has been doing exactly the opposite.

He then goes on to say:

One has to wonder if UNRWA is not actually an obstacle to peace in the Middle East … UNRWA is not there to settle the refugees, it is there not to settle the refugees.

Does that accord, briefly, with the comments that the member for Melbourne Ports made when he slammed the organisation for its ballooning definition of Palestinian refugees and made comments about that. Do you agree that the organisation is indeed not relieving or supporting the Palestinians but doing exactly the opposite as Mr Zahran has stated? Do you agree with his comments that one has to wonder whether the organisation is not actually an obstacle to peace in the Middle East and that it is not there to settle the refugees, it is there not to settle the refugees? Indeed, if that is a correct assessment, on what basis did UNRWA receive a strong rating in its alignment with the Australian aid priorities?

 

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Ronaldson. Can we have a response to that, please?

 

Senator Bob Carr: The UNRWA is strongly supported by the world community. The United States currently puts $239 million into the UNRWA; the European commission $175 million; the United Kingdom, under a Conservative government, $76 million; Germany $16 million; Australia’s contribution is $15 million; Canada $15 million; Denmark $13 million; France $11 million; Ireland $6 million. That list of contributions suggests that the world community sees it as having high value, ranking the United States No. 1. The United States, I am advised, was No. 1 in funding the UNRWA during the eight years of the Bush administration.

Some of the areas where Australian funds have assisted through the UNRWA include the 2011-12 education program, which provided support for 699 schools, 486,000 enrolled pupils, 6,600 training places and 890 teachers in training. The UNRWA operates one of the largest school systems in the Middle East and has been the main provider of free-of-charge basic education to Palestinian refugees for more than 60 years—since the 1960s girls have made up around half of UNRWA students. In addition to that, when it comes to health, as of December 2010 the UNRWA’s health program supports 137 primary healthcare centres, 118 dental clinics and 11 million annual patient visits. On relief services: it provided quarterly food and cash subsidies for almost 275,000 disadvantaged refugees in 2010. It helps more than 20,000 refugees with disabilities to receive direct rehabilitation services each year, with more than 80,000 services provided. It provides $1.4 million in loans to help more than 8,000 vulnerable refugees build their household assets—70 per cent of those beneficiaries happen to be women. It issues a new generation of family registration cards in both Arabic and English. It performs digital scanning and preserving of more than 17.5 million documents, including birth certificates, property deeds and residence documents dating back to pre-1948 British mandate Palestine.

Reading that hard data into the record, I just invite senators to imagine how much more desperate the Middle East would be without that aid and support and how much more amenable Palestinians would be to recruitment by extremists and terrorists if that support flowing to their schools and hospitals and disability services were suddenly withdrawn.

 

CHAIR: Thank you. That concludes discussion of that item. Have we finished questions in 1.3?

Link to full Hansard transcript.

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