Senator Scott Ludlam – Estimates question about Australian delegation to Israel

photo of Senator Scott Ludlam
February 11, 2016

Questioned the behaviour of an Australian delegation during a meeting with representatives of the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian education minister, Dr Sabri Saidam, described the meeting as very explosive and very challenging and said that rude and blunt questions had been asked and that the delegation had false information and twisted facts. I wonder—and, again, either Senator Brandis or Mr Innes-Brown, whoever wants to take this one up—did the department do any work in retrospect to try to ascertain why the minister felt this way? It sounds like a particularly undiplomatic delegation, to complete my point.

Whole interaction with Senator George Brandis (Attorney-General) and Mr Marc Innes-Brown (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator LUDLAM: In December last year it was reported that an Australian delegation to Israel, which included minister Christopher Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop MP, ‘freedom commissioner’ Tim Wilson, met with the Palestinian Prime Minister and education minister in the West Bank. Are you familiar with that delegation?

 

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes.

 

Senator LUDLAM: The parliament sends delegations of various standing overseas, and MPs and others are free to travel off their own bat. Can you describe for us the standing of that particular delegation?

 

Senator Brandis: I might take that question.

 

Senator LUDLAM: As you wish.

 

Senator Brandis: I was a member of that group.

 

Senator LUDLAM: I am sorry to leave your name off that list.

 

Senator Brandis: You have not made a mistake. I did not attend the meeting with the Palestinian Authority because I arrived later than that meeting. It certainly was not a parliamentary delegation. There were two ministers involved in what, to use a neutral term, we might call ‘the group of visitors’—Mr Pyne and I—and during the course of our respective visits we undertook a range of official ministerial duties. We undertook our own programs but there was one common point in the program where we jointly had a meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu.

We also attended and participated in some events associated with the broader activities of the group. The group was the Australian delegation to the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue, which is a well-known and reasonably longstanding institution. It is evidently modelled on the Australia US Leadership Dialogue and these events are often described as private diplomacy.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. I think I am with you.

 

Senator Brandis: There was an element of a ministerial visit in Minister Pyne’s program and mine. There were also backbench members of parliament, like Ms Bishop, attending the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue. There were officials, like Mr Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner, who were also there, and there were a number of private citizens there.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Not a parliamentary delegation then? That is the distinction.

 

Senator Brandis: No.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Senator Brandis, for the clarification. You were not in attendance at the meeting that I alluded to before?

 

Senator Brandis: No.

 

Senator LUDLAM: The Palestinian education minister, Dr Sabri Saidam, described the meeting as very explosive and very challenging and said that rude and blunt questions had been asked and that the delegation had false information and twisted facts. I wonder—and, again, either Senator Brandis or Mr Innes-Brown, whoever wants to take this one up—did the department do any work in retrospect to try to ascertain why the minister felt this way? It sounds like a particularly undiplomatic delegation, to complete my point.

 

Senator Brandis: I have seen that report. I think it is not undisputed. I was not there so I cannot really comment but Mr Innes-Brown might be able to respond more directly to your question.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. Go ahead.

 

Mr Innes-Brown : We obviously asked the head of our Australian representative office in Ramallah, Tom Wilson. He has since departed, at the end of his posting. He advised that the Australian parliamentarians and officials present conducted themselves properly in those meetings.

 

Senator LUDLAM: It does not appear that the Palestinian side of that conversation felt that way, because it made global headlines.

 

Mr Innes-Brown : The other thing to note I think was that there were not just Australians there; there was also British representation.

 

Senator LUDLAM: That actually does not dilute the fact that the minister felt that way. If I can proceed—

 

Senator Brandis: Senator Ludlam, if I may—

 

Senator LUDLAM: Go ahead.

 

Senator Brandis: Mr Innes-Brown has told you that a DFAT official who was present was not of the view that there was anything untoward about the way the Australian parliamentarians conducted themselves. The DFAT official, I think we may assume to have been a neutral person—

 

Senator LUDLAM: Senator Brandis, do not insult our intelligence. That is ridiculous.

 

Senator Brandis: You seem to be assuming that a claim by someone that the conduct occurred is to be favoured over the observation of a professional officer of DFAT, who, as I say, may be assumed to be a neutral person.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Dr Saidam said Minister Pyne came to the meeting with a list of complaints. Is the department able to clarify what those complaints were?

 

Mr Innes-Brown : No. I am unaware of that particular claim.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Could you take on notice for us to undertake to establish what Minister Pyne’s complaints were of that Palestinian minister?

 

Senator Brandis: That is assuming that one accepts the characterisation of what Minister Pyne’s contribution to the meeting was in the terms of this particular assertion.

 

Senator LUDLAM: I understand that. He may have been all sweetness and light for all we know, but they were read as a list of complaints—that is a quote that I am putting back to you. So there was one representative of the department present at the meeting; was that Mr Wilson?

 

Mr Innes-Brown : That is right.

 

Senator LUDLAM: Is he still with the department or did he get suspended?

 

Mr Innes-Brown : No, he is.

 

Senator LUDLAM: His posting has changed.

 

Mr Innes-Brown : And I should emphasise that it had nothing to do with this incident; it was because his term came to an end shortly after this visit. But he is still with the department, yes.

 

Senator LUDLAM: I did not take that as an implication. What briefing was provided to the department? Maybe because I have one other quick question I want to get in, I might just ask you to take the following on notice, just in the interests of time, because the chair is winding me up. Could you provide us some information about what kind of briefing was provided by the department and whether the department can provide further information on the meeting, such as an agenda or any briefing documents that attended that meeting, and whether there was any follow-up, either with the minister or representatives at the Palestinian authority in light of his comments about the meeting?

I know that is a fair bit there, but in the interest of time I might move us on.

Link to full Hansard transcript.

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