Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Australia’s international communication following Hamas’ attack; offers of assistance to Israel; and support to APS staff

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
October 23, 2023

I go to the Prime Minister’s international contacts following the Hamas attacks of 7 October. I will start with the general, and then, if it’s necessary to go case by case or specifically, I’m happy to do so, because it may speed the process up. In general, what has been the pattern of messages, calls and requests for calls between the Prime Minister and his Israeli counterpart and also other international counterparts relevant to this horrific event and the subsequent war between Israel and Hamas?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, and obviously, we still have outstanding the question to the PMO in terms of details of any earlier engagement or contact with the Australian leaders, which was taken on notice. I’m happy for—

Senator Wong: I think we all know why you’re doing that. We all grieve with the Australian Jewish community, just as we also seek to reach out to the Australian Palestinian community and those who are grieving those lost. I will take it on notice. Not everybody that you speak to wants to be put into the public arena, and I’m sure that’s the same for us.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I go to the Prime Minister’s international contacts following the Hamas attacks of 7 October. I will start with the general, and then, if it’s necessary to go case by case or specifically, I’m happy to do so, because it may speed the process up. In general, what has been the pattern of messages, calls and requests for calls between the Prime Minister and his Israeli counterpart and also other international counterparts relevant to this horrific event and the subsequent war between Israel and Hamas?

Mr Dewar : The first interaction I would point to was the Prime Minister speaking to the Israeli ambassador to Australia who, as I said, was in Israel. That was early in the morning of Sunday the eighth. I don’t have the specific time for that, but it was early in the morning. I would also note that on—I will just find the date when the Prime Minister said he had sought a call with the Prime Minister of Israel.

Senator Wong: I think the advice I have is that that request was that morning. So, on the Sunday morning, the Prime Minister is briefed, contacts Ambassador Maimon and issues an instruction to request a telephone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. Do you want to go on, Mr Dewar?

Mr Dewar : Then the Israeli ambassador returned to Australia and the Prime Minister met with him in person on 12 October. They’re the key ones I would point to, Senator.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was there contact with other partners? Has the Prime Minister sought to speak with or been engaged with our other security partners or allies in relation to the events that have occurred?

Mr Dewar : The Prime Minister has had a range of international engagements. Obviously, he is in the United States as of now. I don’t have all of the detail of all of the contacts he might’ve had. They’re the key ones that I would refer to, though.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Have any calls taken place, to your knowledge, Mr Dewar? These things are usually scheduled. It’s not common for the content of the calls to be revealed, of course, but it’s common for the actuality of the calls having occurred to be confirmed.

Mr Dewar : There are three I would point to. The call with the Israeli ambassador, the meeting with the Israeli ambassador and the request for a call with Prime Minister Netanyahu were the key calls in this context.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: But, in terms of other security partners or allies, no calls have taken place nor been requested, to your knowledge?

Mr Dewar : I’m not aware of any others, but—

Senator Wong: In this portfolio.

Mr Dewar : In this portfolio, yes. I’m aware that other ministers have been active, just from media reports.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Indeed. Sorry, I asked the question only in relation to security partners and allies. In terms of other nations within the Middle East, for the Prime Minister—I appreciate I’m not asking in relation to Minister Wong—have any other calls been requested or undertaken with other Middle Eastern nations or requested or undertaken with the Palestinian Authority leader, Mr Abbas.

Mr Dewar : I’ll ask if Mr Collingburn has anything to add, because I’m not aware of any. I would point out the Prime Minister had meetings in the course of last week with the Prime Minister of Fiji and the presidents of Lithuania and Malta, so there were a range of international engagements going on. I think it’s important to note that. But I’m not aware of any other calls with other Middle Eastern leaders, if that’s your question..

Mr Collingburn : That’s correct. There have been no requests for calls.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Mr Collingburn. Can I go to estimates QON 0045, which relates to contact between Prime Minister Albanese and the Israeli prime ministers, in terms of contact with former Prime Minister Lapid and Prime Minister Netanyahu. As that’s being found, can I seek an update on the request for a call from Prime Minister Albanese to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The fact that it has been described as a request and wasn’t part of your three points that you highlighted, Mr Dewar, leads me to conclude it hasn’t taken place. Without necessarily revealing when, has it been scheduled yet?

Mr Dewar : I believe we’re still seeking to arrange that call.

Mr Collingburn : That’s right.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So, you’re still seeking to schedule it. QON 0045 indicates that Prime Minister Albanese spoke to then Prime Minister Lapid on 4 August 2022. I think from previous discussions that was the follow-up congratulatory call from Israel to Australia not long after Prime Minister Albanese had taken office. The QON notes that Prime Minister Albanese wrote to—

Senator Wong: Sorry, I can’t find the question on notice. Can we just wait until I get it. I’d like to have it in front of me before you ask questions, if we could hold for 30 seconds.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Sure.

Senator Wong: Is it 0045? I have 0029 from Senator McGrath, but you’re asking a different—was it 0045? Is it a chamber question or an estimates question?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It’s an estimates question. It could be from a previous cycle, looking at it—budget estimates 2022-23. October budget estimates were held in November last year, weren’t they?

Senator Wong: I think, because it’s an earlier estimates—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, an earlier estimates.

Senator Wong: Is it this one?

CHAIR: Maybe you might confirm with Senator Birmingham—

Senator Wong: No, it’s not this one—it’s 0045 of which one?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Of the October budget estimates. I forget whether those hearings were held in late October or early November.

Senator Wong: In 2022. I think we’ve got one here.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The response obviously came earlier this year, because it references events from earlier this year.

Senator Wong: We have 4 August 2022, 5 January 2023 and then I also have QON 0029 which indicates 4 April 2023.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: For clarity, for everybody following at home, the QON I was referencing indicates that Prime Minister Albanese spoke to then Israeli Prime Minister Lapid on 4 August 2022, which was not long after Prime Minister Albanese had taken office, and that Prime Minister Albanese wrote to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on 5 January 2023. That actually was six or seven days after he had become Prime Minister, which was on 29 December. You, Minister, were just adding from another QON—what? You referenced another date in April this year.

Senator Wong: That’s right. In QON 0029 I indicated that we wrote. A call was set up and cancelled by the Israeli side due to diary reasons. The call was rescheduled for the next time available. We can obviously provide dates on notice. This is in response to Senator McGrath. The phone call was originally scheduled for the 28th. This was postponed at the request of the Israeli side due to scheduling changes. A new time was agreed, and the call then took place on 4 April.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Which leads to the overall question there of wanting to check. We’ve now indicated there was a call with the former prime minister on 4 August, a letter on 5 January and a call between the current prime ministers on 4 April. Is that the only occasion on which the two have spoken?

Senator Wong: At prime minister level, not at minister-to-minister level and all of that?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes.

Senator Wong: So you’re ignoring everything else and just want the PM engagement? Okay.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You asked for precise questions, Minister. It’s a precise question there: is that the only time that Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Netanyahu have spoken?

Mr Dewar : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, they’re the dates, and, yes, that’s the only time they’ve spoken?

Mr Dewar : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has there been any other contact since 4 April this year, to the department’s awareness?

Senator Wong: Again, to be precise, between whom?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Between the prime ministers, between Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Mr Dewar : No, 4 April was the telephone call, and, as the Prime Minister said publicly, he then sought a telephone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that hasn’t been scheduled yet, as we said before.

Senator McGRATH: So no text messages or WhatsApp messages between the two of them?

Mr Dewar : Not that I’m aware of.

Senator Wong: I’m surprised you’re raising WhatsApp and texts.

Senator McGRATH: I’m just intrigued.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m sure that it takes place. In fact, I seem to recall that Prime Minister Albanese himself publicly referenced texting the outgoing Prime Minister of New Zealand over whether or not they were both going to the NATO leaders summit. I’m sure it takes place between leaders as an effective part of communication.

Is there any reason why Prime Minister Albanese has not been engaged at other leader-level conversations with either security partners and allies or regional leaders and nations since the events of 7 October?

Senator Wong: He’s in Washington.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I know he is now.

Senator Wong: What do you mean he’s not engaged with security partners and allies? He’s in Washington.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, he landed in Washington just a few hours ago; correct.

Senator Wong: You go. You want to make a political point of this as well. Really.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m just asking a question about a bipartisan motion referencing endorsed engagement with Middle East partners and, of course, engagement with security partners. Minister, I’ve got no doubt that on Thursday we’ll go through your engagement. I’m only asking in terms of the Prime Minister’s engagement now. The advice from officials—from Mr Collingburn—was that there have been no calls with others relating to these issues, nor any requested. I’m seeking advice as to whether there’s any reason why not.

Mr Dewar : What I think we said was that over the last week the Prime Minister has met with Prime Minister Rabuka and leaders of Malta and Lithuania. I don’t have with me the full details of what was discussed in those meetings, but the Prime Minister has had international engagements. There are no other calls—that I’m aware of—specifically relating to this issue.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has Israel made any requests of Australia following the Hamas attacks?

Mr Dewar : Not that I’m aware of. I’d refer you to DFAT in case there have been any officials-level engagements that I might not be tracking.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’re not aware of any? Has Australia made any offers of assistance to Israel in response to the attacks, or has Australia made any further offers of assistance or received any requests, beyond the $10 million of humanitarian assistance that’s been committed for international organisations operating in Gaza?

Mr Dewar : I think the government has been very clear in its support for Israel and its condemnation of the attacks from very early on. That support has been very clearly offered, I would suggest. In terms of the details of aid that might’ve been requested, I’d refer you to DFAT for that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did PM&C have any engagement with the New South Wales government in relation to the protests that were held on the steps of the Sydney Opera House?

Mr Dewar : I’m not aware of any specific engagement with New South Wales. As I said previously, Home Affairs runs the National Coordination Mechanism, and that does involve state and territory police forces, AFP and others as well. Certainly law and order was discussed in that context, but a specific discussion with the New South Wales government on the events at the opera house at an officials level—I’m not aware of any contact. If others in the room have information, obviously they will be able to come forward, but I’m not aware of any.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is PM&C aware of any engagement between the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister’s office and the New South Wales government in relation to those events?

Mr Dewar : I’m not, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect us to be.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the Prime Minister engaged with Islamic faith leaders or community leaders in relation to the overall situation and as part of efforts to help to ensure that their communities are also reassured?

Senator Wong: Has Mr Dutton? If that’s the standard, has Mr Dutton engaged with Muslim leaders?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I asked the question before in relation to Jewish faith leaders. I was seeking to make sure that I was being even-handed, I thought, in asking that.

Mr Dewar : Senator, I think the Prime Minister has publicly been on the record about the importance of making sure that all elements of our community are feeling supported through this period, but I’d have to take on notice the specific engagements. I don’t know if colleagues have anything to add.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That’s fine. I’m happy for you to take it on notice, Mr Dewar. Within PM&C and the wider APS, can I ask what support is being provided to any staff who may be feeling impacted by events that have unfolded over the last two weeks? What steps are being taken in that regard?

Mr Dewar : I’ll ask Ms Elliston, as the Chief Operating Officer, to respond.

Ms Elliston : I’ll ask some other colleagues to come to the table as well. They’re related—from the corporate area—and can provide information. They can talk to the wellbeing and support measures that we have in place across the department and that are in place in general and used.

Mr Cameron : I have nothing further to add to that comment. That’s absolutely appropriate. They’re able to avail themselves of our employee assistance program and the other support services that are on offer from the department.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the department taken any proactive steps in the last two weeks to ensure staff are aware and reminded of those support services? Are you aware as to whether that is being led across government agencies?

Ms Elliston : I’m not aware of anything being led across the breadth of the APS. That might be a question best directed to the Australian Public Service Commission. Within PM&C, it’s a matter for managers and leaders in the organisation to look out for the wellbeing of their staff and to pass those messages on. We wouldn’t necessarily have full visibility of that in the corporate area, but that’s certainly our expectation of managers and leaders in the organisation.

Mr Cameron : The only thing I’d add to that is that, in the last couple of weeks, of course, in recognition of Mental Health Month, there was a departmental email circulated to ensure that staff are aware of all of the services that are on offer from the department to ensure that people had the support that they might need across a range of matters not necessarily related to this particular and significant issue.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Can I just check: did the department have any contact with the Embassy of Israel on or following 17 October?

Mr Dewar : I’m not aware, but I’ll ask Mr Collingburn if he’s aware of any contact with the Israeli Embassy following 17 October.

Mr Collingburn : I’m not aware of any contact from the department with the Israeli embassy.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are you aware of any contact between the Prime Minister’s Office and officials of the embassy?

Mr Dewar : I’m not aware of any, but I don’t know.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Perhaps we can take that on notice, please.

Mr Dewar : Is that whether there was any contact between the Israeli Embassy and the Prime Minister’s Office?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes.

Mr Dewar : I’m not sure that PM&C will be able to—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: PM&C routinely takes questions on matters that require checking with the PMO.

Mr Dewar : I’ll see if we can find out.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. The leaders of the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the UK issued a statement dated yesterday—it was probably earlier today our time that it was issued—indicating that they had spoken. Was Australia invited to participate in any of the discussions?

Mr Dewar : DFAT would be the ones I would expect to be aware of any approach on those sorts of things.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Surely if an invitation for meeting at leader level, or discussions at leader level, were received, you’d be aware, Mr Dewar?

Mr Dewar : Yes. Well, if there was an invitation and it came to us, it came to PM&C, myself and Mr Collingburn would be aware of that. We’re not aware of one.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: If you’re not aware of it, whilst we can check with DFAT we can also presumably conclude that Prime Minister Albanese was not invited to those discussions. Have there been any requests or invitations—

Senator Wong: Sorry; which group was that? Was that G7?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It’s not completely G7.

CHAIR: How do we know what he was or wasn’t invited to if we don’t know what it was?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I listed the participants.

Senator Wong: So the G7 but not Japan?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes.

Senator Wong: That’s the group. Okay. I understand the point, but we would not normally be—we’re not in the G7.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, although we actually have been invited to leaders summits for the last couple.

Senator Wong: I’m sure that DFAT might be able to cast some light on what discussions may or may not have occurred.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Have there been any requests for discussion about the events of 7 October that have been received by Australia, at leader level, from other countries?

Mr Dewar : The Prime Minister has a range of engagements coming up at which I would expect—this is just my expectation—that these Middle Eastern issues would be raised. I’m not pre-empting conversations that might happen, but I do just want to make that point. Obviously, the Prime Minister is meeting with President Biden this week. Like I said, I don’t want to pre-empt what might be discussed, but, given the circumstances. I am not aware of any other specific calls to discuss this issue. The Prime Minister, as I’ve said, has regular ongoing international engagements, including the ones I listed previously, over the last week or so.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: All of those are pre-existing engagements or commitments, so, in terms of any new, additional or specific requests for leader-level discussion from other countries, we’ve ascertained that, aside from Prime Minister Albanese’s request for a discussion with Mr Netanyahu, which is still waiting to be scheduled, there haven’t been other specific requests from Australia. Have any been received from other nations by Australia for leader-level discussion?

Mr Dewar : I’d have to take it on notice just in case there had been anything through DFAT channels that I’m not aware of.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay. None that you’re aware of, but you’ll take it on notice for double-checking?

Mr Dewar : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. I am happy to move off that topic if there is nothing else relating to that. Chair, if you were looking to give the call elsewhere, that would be a good juncture, but otherwise—

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