Senator Penny Wong – responding to questions from Senator Mehreen Faruqi relating to the Government’s decision to suspend funding for UNRWA

photo of Senator Penny Wong
February 6, 2024

Just when one thinks that the Labor government couldn’t sink any lower on Palestine, they have made the appalling and extremely irresponsible decision to suspend funding for UNWRA.

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:21): My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong. Just when one thinks that the Labor government couldn’t sink any lower on Palestine, they have made the appalling and extremely irresponsible decision to suspend funding for UNWRA. In four months of Israel’s genocide, with more than 27,000 Palestinians killed, including over 11,000 children, you haven’t uttered a word of condemnation, yet it took you no time at all to suspend life-saving funding to UNWRA, further enabling collective punishment of Palestinians as Israel continues its rampage and massacre in Gaza. UNWRA chief Mr Philippe Lazzarini has said that Israel has yet to present any evidence of its allegations to UNWRA. Minister, what evidence did you see before you made the catastrophic decision to suspend UNWRA’s funding?

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): There is so much in that question which is false. It reminds us again that, just like Peter Dutton, the Greens—

The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong, please refer to—

Senator WONG: I’m sorry. Apologies. The opposition leader, Mr Dutton, and the Greens are on a unity ticket which is all about dividing the Australian community and weaponising this horrific conflict.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator WONG: You’re the same. You are. There are two facts in relation to UNWRA.

The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong, please resume your seat. Senator McGrath—Senator Scarr. I beg your pardon.

Senator Scarr: I take it as a compliment! The conflation of the Greens position with Peter Dutton—

The PRESIDENT: Senator, what is your point of order?

Senator Scarr: is a personal imputation.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Scarr, that is not a point of order. Minister Wong.

Senator WONG: There are two things I’m going to say about UNWRA. There are two facts we cannot ignore in relation to UNWRA. The first is that they do life-saving work. I would remind you, Senator Faruqi, that we doubled the core funding to UNWRA. I remind you of that. It’s something you never say, something you do not acknowledge. You’re shaking your head now. See? Here we go again. The second point is that the recent allegations against its staff are grave and need to be investigated. Those facts are both true. That is why we have suspended, along with many of our like-minded partners, pending these matters being carefully considered.

I have to say it is of deep regret that, while the government are seeking to use our voice to advocate for the release of hostages, for the protection of civilian lives, for humanitarian access and for a pathway out of the conflict, we do not have partners in this effort in either the opposition or the Greens. They would rather see a community divided and they would rather try to use this to pick up votes. That is what is happening. That is the similarity between the opposition and the Greens. I remind the Greens that we still have 130 hostages being held by Hamas. I remind those opposite that there are 1.7 million people in Gaza who are internally displaced. The reality is that we are seeking to play a constructive role. There are two parties in this place who are playing politics with this conflict. One of them has just asked me a question. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a first supplementary?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:24): Minister, I did not need a lesson in gaslighting. Millions of Palestinians have been forcibly displaced. Families are forced to move repeatedly in search of safety under Israel’s bombardment. Over 66,000 Palestinians have been injured. Children are being starved and traumatised. Pregnant women are giving birth in tents. Given all this evidence of acute humanitarian needs and the urgency of aid, Minister Wong, when will you restore the funding? (Time expired)

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:25): I would say to—

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong, I’m sorry; resume your seat. Senators, there are very different opinions across this chamber on a range of matters. This is one. Senator Faruqi has the right to ask her question in silence, and the minister has the right to answer it in silence.

Senator WONG: I would invite Senator Faruqi to perhaps consider what I said in the press conference on Thursday with the New Zealand foreign minister and defence ministers, where I went through precisely some of the facts to which she has averted. In an explanation amidst those who are attacking the government for our funding and support over many years, including under the previous government, of UNWRA, I reminded people why the Australian government now and previously has funded that organisation, and that is because it is the only entity which has been capable of delivering assistance into the Occupied Palestinian Territories. That is also why we increased the core funding. I’d invite you in your social media and public media to perhaps recognise that.

I also made the point that 1.7 million people are internally displaced. I made the point that there are increasingly few safe places for Palestinians to go. I reminded people that there are one million at risk of starvation and 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza that are— (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a second supplementary?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:26): Minister, we’re coming up to week 2 of complete silence from the Labor government on the International Court of Justice ruling which found that Israel is plausibly committing genocide and gave a clear signal to Australia to stop aiding, abetting and shielding Israel. Minister, when will the Labor government break its cowardly silence on the ICJ ruling?

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:27): Again, Senator Faruqi has not looked at what we have done and said. I would invite her to look at the joint statement that the Australian government—through the Minister for Defence, the Deputy Prime Minister, and I—alongside the New Zealand Prime Minister, has released with the 2+2 last week, which also specifically referenced the ICJ. I would refer her to our statement there, which included the expectation that we respect the independence of the ICJ and that we respect the critical role it plays in upholding international law and the rules based order. Both countries articulated—

Senator Faruqi interjecting

Senator WONG: You don’t want to hear the answer, Senator Faruqi? You just want to personally attack me? Is that right?

Senator Faruqi interjecting

Senator WONG: It’s par for the course. Our shared expectation is that Israel will act in accordance with the ICJ’s ruling. You may not think that’s of significance where two Five Eyes countries say that; I beg to differ. (Time expired)

Link to Parliamentary Hansard