Senator Penny Wong – Estimates questions about Australia’s approach to the peace process and Australian aid to Palestine

photo of Senator Penny Wong
October 25, 2018

Questioned whether Australia’s position on elements of the peace process could be considered balanced and asked for information about Australian aid expenditure to Palestine.

Can I come to this point, in terms of Australia taking a sort of balanced role in relation to the peace process: you had a package of announcements. They were: ‘Consideration of recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the move of the embassy’—two points there—’Reviewing our support of or our approach to the JCPOA’, and ‘Our voting position in relation to the G77’. Can you tell me, in terms of the different interests and the divergent interests of both Israel and the Palestinians, is there any aspect of the announcement that you think the Palestinians would be supportive of?

Whole interaction with Ms HK Yu (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division) and Senator Marise Payne (Minister for Foreign Affairs) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator WONG: I could put to you the multiple statements from DFAT officers. ‘Our position on Jerusalem, as you know, is that it needs to be left in the final negotiations for what we hope will be a two-state solution, which Australia’s supported over the years and continues to support’. Can I come to this point, in terms of Australia taking a sort of balanced role in relation to the peace process: you had a package of announcements. They were: ‘Consideration of recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the move of the embassy’—two points there—’Reviewing our support of or our approach to the JCPOA’, and ‘Our voting position in relation to the G77’. Can you tell me, in terms of the different interests and the divergent interests of both Israel and the Palestinians, is there any aspect of the announcement that you think the Palestinians would be supportive of?


Senator Payne: These are matters for conversation and for the review process.


Senator WONG: In other words, Prime Minister Netanyahu has previously advocated for both those substantive positions. It’s public record, and he’s obviously made public statements subsequent to the announcement. But in terms of us actually taking a balanced position, is there anything in that set of announcements that the Palestinian representatives would have been supportive of or would have welcomed?


Senator Payne: I’m not going to speak for—


Senator WONG: You’re Australia’s foreign minister.


CHAIR: Let her finish.


Senator Payne: Perhaps I could finish my sentence.


Senator WONG: Yes, you can. But it would be good if you addressed the answer.


CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Wong.


Senator WONG: You’re ducking and weaving on this.


CHAIR: It’s only five minutes till cup of tea time.


Senator WONG: Yes. I’m waiting. I don’t think icy stares get away from the fact that this is an untenable position that you’ve been putting. I asked you a question about the Palestinians—


Senator Payne: I was waiting for you to finish interrupting.


Senator WONG: I had, thank you.


Senator Payne: I said—or I tried to say—that I was not going to speak for other countries and other groups who will contribute to this review process, as we welcome them to do. But in terms of the process that has been set in place, I reiterate that it is a review to look at the breadth of the policy implications on these issues, which have been set out both in the Prime Minister’s press release and the public comments that have taken place since. We will undertake that review, in good faith, without prejudice, without a prejudged position, with an open approach and we will engage broadly on these matters.


Senator WONG: Both parties of government have sought to take a balanced position. Both parties of government have, I think, demonstrated historically our friendship with Israel and both parties have supported a two-state solution. It was only one party which, over a flurry of phone calls, has shifted a bipartisan position.


Senator WONG: Can you tell me how a pre-emptive decision around the capital of Israel, which has been a point of contention and viewed as a final status issue for decades, helps the peace process and—


Senator Payne: Had there been a pre-emptive decision—which you continue to assert and is not the case—then we could have the discussion. But what the government has announced is a review.


Senator WONG: Can I just go back to the G77 position—


CHAIR: Can I just quickly ask on this particular matter: is it not the case that, in relation to the two-state solution, the Prime Minister, in his statement, was quite strong, in relation to this review, about having East Jerusalem as a possible capital for any future Palestinian state and, for some reason, our friends in the ABC and other people are not willing to balance this debate in relation to the review—it’s only about moving our embassy in Israel to West Jerusalem—but they studiously avoid, for whatever reason, the other aspect of the statement, if I’m correct, which was to consider East Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state, which, in that context then, balances things up very well, especially if one seeks to pursue genuinely the two-state solution?


Senator Payne: The fourth paragraph of the joint media statement released on 16 October goes specifically to that point.


Senator WONG: I’d like to know when the UN post was first advised of our voting position on the G77 resolution.


Senator Payne: I can clarify the timing from my end on that, which I didn’t have before.


Senator WONG: But I’d like to know when DFAT provided that voting advice but you go ahead.


Senator Payne: The department was notified of that decision on 15 October.


Senator WONG: Who made that decision?


Senator Payne: I did—in consultation with the Prime Minister and colleagues, of course.


Senator WONG: This was one of the Prime Ministers discussions?


CHAIR: Let’s adjourn until 10:45.


Senator WONG: I appreciate the courtesy and I’ll try and be very quick. Questions are in relation to aid to the Palestinian territories. That’s the only component I’ll be doing now. If people could come to the table for those, I’d appreciate that. I understand the total funding to the Palestinian territories for the current financial year is $43 million. Can someone confirm that?


Ms Yu : Yes, that’s correct—$43 million is the total amount to the Palestinian territories.


Senator WONG: Do you want me to call you ‘Ms Yu’ or ‘Ms HK Yu’?


Ms Yu : ‘Yu’ is fine; that’s my surname.


Senator WONG: I figured that.


CHAIR: Just not ‘Hey you’.


Senator WONG: I’d be ‘Senator YY Wong’ if I followed that. That was quite funny, wasn’t it. I didn’t even mean to be self-deprecating.


CHAIR: A lot of people ask ‘Why Penny?’


Senator WONG: And that’s made up of $20 million to UNRWA, $10 million to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and $13 million through the Australia Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement, correct?


Ms Yu : The figure that you’re quoting is actually for 2017-18. We obviously have the amounts for 2018-19 as well.


Senator WONG: So the $43 million is the 2017-18 figure?


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator WONG: My apologies. And the 2018-19 figure?


Ms Yu : The total amount for 2018-19 is $43 million, as you said, with $15 million for UNRWA. The reason for that is that there’s a four-year agreement of $20 million per year, but $5 million of that was brought forward to 2017-18; that’s why for 2018-19 it’s $15 million. We also have $2.5 million for what is known as AMENCA 3—that’s the allocated amount for 2018-19.


Senator WONG: I want total amount and components for 2017-18 and 2018-19. Let’s just do that.


Ms Yu : For 2017-18, the total amount was $43.8 million: $26.5 million was provided to UNRWA; $2.2 million to AMENCA 3; $10 million to UN humanitarian fund for the PTs; and $1 million to the Palestinian Authority—that was because it was suspended halfway, so $1 million had gone by the time it was suspended, through the World Bank trust fund. And then we have other smaller amounts, which I’m very happy to go through if you’d like.


Senator WONG: Do you want to just provide them on notice to me? Is that okay?


Ms Yu : Sure, will do.


Senator WONG: And then equivalent figures for 2018-19?


Ms Yu : Yes, of course. For UNRWA, $15 million and for AMENCA 3, $2.5 million, bearing in mind, obviously, that the amount to APHEDA has been suspended; that $2.5 million includes that for now, but it will be adjusted as a result. The amount to the UN humanitarian fund for the PTs is to be confirmed; we will allocate that throughout the year. There is no longer any funding allocated to the Palestinian Authority via the World Bank trust fund. Once again, the smaller amounts will be determined, and we can also provide the amounts that are already determined to you on notice.


Senator WONG: I’d appreciate that. And the 2018-19 total figure was?


Ms Yu : It was $43 million.


Senator WONG: So pretty much the same, but more of that is currently unallocated.


Ms Yu : That’s correct.


Senator WONG: On 2 July, Ms Bishop announced the government was discontinuing funding to the multi-donor trust fund for the Palestinian Recovery and Development Program and allocating that money to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as you and I have been discussing. Just to be clear, was that decision made by the minister at the cabinet level or by the department?


Ms Yu : That decision was made by the foreign minister.


Senator WONG: Were ministers consulted with prior to that decision being made?


Ms Yu : I don’t recall, unless of course the foreign minister’s office consulted other ministers.


Senator WONG: What about other MPs or senators—are you aware of any?


Ms Yu : I’m not aware of any.


Senator WONG: Did DFAT consult with other departments or agencies prior to the decision?


Ms Yu : No, I don’t recall consulting other departments.


Senator WONG: Were any other governments or multilateral organisations consulted prior to this decision being made?


Ms Yu : No. I guess, with regard to other governments, we engage in conversations about how we provide aid to PT with our like-mindeds. I’ll have to take on notice exactly who we may have spoken to, but these things happen on a business-as-usual basis.


Senator WONG: Perhaps on notice: which governments or multilateral organisations were consulted? Who did that consultation? And what position was expressed, if any, by these governments or multilateral organisations? Can you tell me what DFAT’s assessment is of the impact this decision has had on those living in the Palestinian territories?


Ms Yu : The decision to suspend funding to APHEDA in particular or the impact of our full program for the PTs?


Senator WONG: Your full set of changes to the funding for the Palestinian territories?


Ms Yu : As you know, AMENCA 3 is continuing. We do still have $2.5 million allocated to that. The only change that’s been made is to redirect funding for the Palestinian Authority to the UN humanitarian fund for PT. Given that the size of our program to PT hasn’t changed significantly, our view is that Australia is still contributing significantly to the stability of Israel and PT through our aid program.


Senator WONG: Can I turn now to UNRWA, please?


Ms Yu : Sure.


Senator WONG: In August of this year, the US indicated it would no longer provide funding to UNRWA. The US provided, I think, $360 million-plus in 2017. That was reduced to, I think, under $70 million in 2018—$60 million, I’m told. Is that right?


Ms Yu : The US actually recently cut its full funding to UNRWA—


Senator WONG: Sorry, this is prior to the decision. It was $364 million in 2017, then it was reduced to $60 million in 2018 and then we had an August decision that says nothing; correct.

Ms Yu : Yes, that’s correct.


Senator WONG: Are you able to give me any assessment of the impact of this decision on Palestinian refugees?


Ms Yu : It has certainly had some impact on UNRWA’s ability to fund basic quality services to Palestinians, so they have been seeking extra funds from other donors. To some extent they have been successful in filling some of the gaps.


Senator WONG: Just remind me of the total shortfall, what was sought and where they are up to in seeking to fill the gap?


Ms Yu : I do have that information but not on me, so I’ll have to take that on notice.


Senator WONG: Has Australia expressed any concern to the United States in relation to this decision?


Ms Yu : I’ll have to take that on notice. I’m not sure whether there has been any formal representation made.


Senator WONG: I always love that word ‘formal’! Has there been any communication at a political or an office level to the US about the impact of this decision?


Ms Yu : I’ll come back to you on that.


Senator WONG: That’s a ‘I’ll take it on notice’?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator WONG: Has Australia been approached to provide additional funding?


Ms Yu : Yes, we were, but this was prior to the US announcing its total cut. I explained to you previously that we brought forward the $5 million from this year to the previous year. That was at the request of UNRWA.


Senator WONG: But have we been approached for additional funding subsequent to the US decision to cut funding?


Ms Yu : Not to my knowledge.


Senator WONG: Secretary?


Ms Adamson : No.


Senator WONG: Is the government considering making an additional contribution over and above what has been made to date to make up this funding shortfall?


Ms Yu : That will be the decision of the government. We certainly have not provided advice to date.


Senator WONG: You’ll provide me on notice with the shortfall and what is being sought internationally?


Ms Yu : Yes.


Senator WONG: Senator Payne, is the government considering making any additional contribution to UNRWA?


Senator Payne: No.


Senator WONG: Do you have any concerns about the effect of the US decision on Palestinian refugees and the services provided by UNRWA?


Senator Payne: The government makes its contribution to support some of the most disadvantaged communities in the region, but decisions of other governments are a matter for them.


Senator WONG: The decision was made to move money forward in recognition of the effect of the earlier decision, so we’re not unaware of the humanitarian effect.


Senator Payne: I understand that.


Senator WONG: We’re now providing less than last year because there was a bring-forward. Do you have any concerns, as foreign minister, about the implications of the loss in funding for UNRWA for this particular cohort of refugees?


Senator Payne: I would still reiterate that I believe each nation makes its own decisions about the amount of funding it provides to various parts of the United Nations and where that funding is directed. Australia, however, is making a significant contribution and observes its own obligations in that way.


Senator WONG: What do you regard as a significant contribution? The $15 million to UNRWA—is that what you’re referencing?


Senator Payne: That and more broadly, yes.


Senator WONG: But in relation to this particular cohort, for want of a better term?


Senator Payne: Yes.


Senator WONG: I’ve managed to do it, Chair, thanks to Ms Yu.

Link to full Hansard transcript.