Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Australia’s position on the recognition of a Palestinian state

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
June 3, 2024

I will now move to questions. To kick us off, can I ask: what is the current Australian government position with regard to the recognition of a Palestinian state?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. I echo the comments of the chair and Senator Wong in relation to the late Senator Linda White, and reiterate the remarks of condolence and recognition of her service that I made in the Senate. I also echo the remarks from the minister and the secretary in relation to Papua New Guinea and of course the tragedy that has unfolded there. I have no doubt we will turn a little later to matters of PNG. I also thank you, Minister, for continuing the tradition of bipartisan engagement in the Pacific for our recent mission to Tuvalu. I want to place on record my thanks to the various missions of ASEAN nations, not only for their attendance at the second ASEAN-Australia Special Summit but also for facilitating the engagement of the Leader of the Opposition and/or myself. I express our gratitude for the engagement and opportunity provided there.

I will now move to questions. To kick us off, can I ask: what is the current Australian government position with regard to the recognition of a Palestinian state?

Mr Maclachlan: The Australian government has not recognised Palestine as a state. The Australian government has indicated that it is willing to consider recognition of a Palestinian state in the context of a peace process; that recognition could come as a step in the peace process rather than necessarily as the final outcome of a peace process. Were that step to be taken, it would be taken with a view to considering how it would benefit the peace process and its cause of ultimately finding a two-state solution: the State of Israel and a state of Palestine living in peace, side by side, in shared and common security.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The DFAT website states very plainly, ‘Australia does not recognise a Palestinian state.’ Is that, at this point in time, the correct and the official position of the government?

Mr Maclachlan: Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: On 10 May, Australia voted yes to a United Nations resolution that was headlined ‘admission of new members’. That included a number of statements, including:

S tressing its conviction that the State of Palestine is fully qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter …

If Australia does not recognise a Palestinian state and does not and would not do so unless the types of grounds you just referenced are met—and we’ll come back to them again in a little more detail—why did Australia vote for the adoption of a resolution that ‘stresses its conviction that the state of Palestine is fully qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with article 4 of the charter’?

Mr Maclachlan: The explanation of vote that was delivered at the time made it quite clear, explicitly clear as I recall, that, while Australia voted for the resolution—a resolution that did not grant Palestinian’s membership of the UN and that merely expanded its rights as an observer, and we can go into some of those details if you wish—we did not consider voting for the resolution a de facto recognition of a state of Palestine as a bilateral measure, if you like.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So does Australia not believe that the state of Palestine is fully qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with article 4 of the charter?

Ms McKenna : The resolution reaffirmed the international community’s support for the two-state solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security within recognised borders. Under article 4 of the charter, admission of a state to the United Nations is a two-step process which is to ‘be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council’, consistent with the charter. The General Assembly itself cannot grant, and has not by this resolution granted, membership to the Palestinian nation. As set out in Australia’s explanation of vote, the resolution expressed the aspiration for full Palestinian membership, but that must ultimately be recommended by the Security Council, consistent with the charter.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That addresses the process by which, indeed, a state of Palestine would be granted membership fully of the United Nations. However, Australia voted for, under the direction of this government, a resolution:

Stressing its conviction that the State of Palestine is fully qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter …

Does Australia reserve its position on that clause? Is that clause not part of the resolution that Australia agrees with? Or does Australia believe that the state of Palestine is fully qualified for membership?

Mr Maclachlan: It is the case that the only way in which the state of Palestine can become a member is through a decision of the United Nations Security Council. That was not going to be possible through the General Assembly. The Security Council had made clear that it did not accept the Palestinian bid to be a full member of the UN. The UNGA resolution nonetheless provided an opportunity for the Palestinian observer mission to become more engaged, if you like, through some expanded rights that were set out in the annex to the resolution.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The resolution says:

1. Determines that the state of Palestine is qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter of the United Nations and should therefore be admitted to membership in the United Nations;

Is that the position of Australia?

Mr Maclachlan: The position of Australia is that it will be for the UN Security Council to determine whether or not, in accordance with the charter, the Palestinians have qualified for membership, and so far it has not managed to do that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Australia voted for this resolution with the words that I’m quoting, and those words are very clear cut. It says ‘determines that the state of Palestine is qualified’. Then it goes on and says ‘and should therefore be admitted to membership’. Does Australia believe that the state of Palestine, as described herein, is qualified and should be admitted to membership?

Mr Maclachlan: Excuse me; I’m just refreshing my memory of what’s in the EOV. I think it’s fair to say that we were clear that we understood, as you’ve identified, that the resolution expresses the GA’s aspiration for full membership of the UN. But, as I’ve already articulated, that is something that’s not within the gift of the General Assembly; it’s only within the gift of the Security Council. It’s also the case that within the EOV we were explicit that not everything in the resolution was what we would propose, and yet we did vote for it. As I said, the fact that we voted for it did not amount to bilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

Senator BIRMINGHAM:   We continue to go around in circles somewhat here. I understand that only with the concurrence of the Security Council can actual membership be granted. Nonetheless, the General Assembly passed a resolution seeking to make clear its position. Australia supported that resolution with a ‘yes’ vote, contrary to many of our usual like-mindeds. That resolution clearly expressed the view—indeed, called it a determination—that the state of Palestine is qualified for membership and further stated that it should therefore be admitted to membership. It was a very clear expression and clearly a strong message being sent to the Security Council by the General Assembly. And when we say ‘sent to the Security Council’, what we really mean is sent to the United Kingdom and the United States, in relation to the most recent votes at the Security Council. I’ll ask again: was that the intent of Australia? Did Australia and this government sign on to make the statement that the state of Palestine is qualified and should therefore be admitted? Or will you make a clear statement here that was not the intent, that you were voting perhaps for some of the other reasons you’ve identified, in terms of participation in other ways, but that you were not seeking to make the statement or to send the message that Australia believes, at this point in time, that the state of Palestine is qualified and should be admitted?

Mr Maclachlan: What was clear from our EOV, and as I’ve said at the outset, it is the position of the Australian government that we support a two-state solution, and I’ve explained the timing of bilateral recognition. It’s also clear in our EOV that this isn’t necessarily the resolution we would have crafted, but, on balance, it was one that we felt lent its weight towards the objective of a two-state solution.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: If this isn’t the resolution that you would have crafted, here and now is an opportunity to be clear about the parts of the resolution that the government may fundamentally disagree with. That is what I’m inviting you to do—to be clear in stating agreement, disagreement with, in particular in this case, the statement in the resolution that ‘determines that the state of Palestine is qualified’ and ‘should therefore be admitted to membership’. Is that the policy of the Australian government?

Ms Adams : I’ll just repeating from the explanation of vote, the resolution does not provide membership of the United Nations and retains the status of the Permanent Observer mission, with a modest extension of additional rights. That is what we voted for with some 143 other countries.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Secretary, that’s a statement of fact because of the position of the security council, in particular because of the position of the United States. That’s a statement of reality because of their position, but I am asking about Australia’s position, given Australia expressed its ‘yes’ vote for this resolution. This is an opportunity to make it clear if there are reservations or carve outs in relation to the parts of the resolution that Australia does not agree with and, in particular, the vote as recorded. None of the explanations that you’ve given, in relation to quotes from the statement, disagree explicitly with this. Does Australia concur with the resolution statement that the state of Palestine is qualified and should therefore be admitted to membership.

Senator Wong: The world is confronted with a catastrophic set of circumstances in Gaza. We have the horrific attacks of 7 October. We have the terrorist group Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people. We have a conflict that has now gone on for months. We have tens of thousands of people, including women and children, who have been killed. We have an intervention in Rafah where millions of people, who fled as they were asked to flee, are sheltering, and civilians are dying. So, of course, the government, like so many countries around the world are and like decent people everywhere are is looking to what we can do from afar to progress the cause of peace.

We have stated repeatedly that a two-state solution is ultimately the only path to peace and security for Israel and Israelis, as well as for Palestinians. Unlike some in your party—including Mr Sharma, who hosted an organisation that does not support a two-state solution; or Mr Bandt, who also doesn’t appear to want to progress that—that is our focus, and it’s not a focus that is theoretical. We come to this with a very deep belief that that is the only pathway to peace, and I was reaffirmed of that in my visit to the Middle East.

So what I have said is we will be guided by whether recognition will advance the cause of peace and progress towards a two-state solution, and I’ve also said that in terms of bilateral recognition, as Mr Maclachlan has said, that we do not regard this vote as constituting bilateral recognition, which is consistent with many partners. That is the position of Germany and the United Kingdom, that is the position of—I’m sorry, that is the position of Japan, Korea and New Zealand. I’ve also said that, unlike your government, we no longer see recognition as only occurring at the end of a negotiation. And why is that? Because we recognise that, given where things are, it may be appropriate for countries to seek to consider recognition as part of a peace process. That is the position of Germany and the United Kingdom.

I’ve also said that a Palestinian state cannot be in a position to threaten Israel’s security, and I’ve made clear we want to see reform—governance reforms to the Palestinian Authority. We want to see a Palestinian Authority that is committed to peace, that disavows violence and is ready to engage in a meaningful political process. We want to see commitment to peace in how the PA leads it people.

I have articulated this very complex—this is a very complex problem that has not been able to be resolved. It has eluded resolution from leaders and presidents and people with much more diplomatic capacity and weight than you or I will ever have. But what we can do in this country is try and do the right thing in terms of Australia’s engagement to progress peace. So we made that vote; we chose to vote in the way we did for those reasons and for the reasons in the EOV.

We obviously also took a view, as Mr Maclachlan has said, that the way in which the effect of the resolution was to provide additional rights to Palestinians as observers. You or I are not going to resolve the Middle East in an estimates hearing, but what Australia can do is contribute to the progress of peace in whatever way we can, and that’s what we seek to do.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Minister. It is certainly a problem that has bedevilled most particularly Israeli people and Palestinian peoples for decades in terms of their lives and the tragedy of the lives lost, and nobody denies that. Nobody denies the difficulty of how peace is achieved, although in the current conflict, the importance of seeing—as the current ceasefire proposal would demand—all hostages being released, and, as should also be the case, Hamas being disarmed and disabled.

We won’t solve those matters in this estimates hearing, but, importantly, this is the place where the parliament gets to scrutinise what the government of the day’s position is, and your government has moved Australia’s position. In relation to bilateral recognition, I want to come to that in a little bit and understand further some of the terms that you laid out in your speech and what those preconditions may be or what they might mean. But Australia, under this government, also moved its position in the United Nations, and did so contrary to the positions taken by Germany or the United Kingdom and, in particular, contrary to the position taken by the United States and many other like-mindeds.

Now, if it is the position of the government that it voted for that resolution because, as each of you have emphasised, it provided some additional rights to the Palestinian mission in their participation in UN fora, but not agreeing with the elements that expressly provide a call for recognition and a statement of qualification of a state of Palestine, then this is the chance for the government to clearly state that. As the resolution states very clearly:

… it determined that the State of Palestine is qualified for membership in the United Nations in accordance with Article 4 of the Charter of the United Nations and should, therefore, be admitted to membership in the Organization.

The language really couldn’t be clearer in terms of a stated view and determination that qualification is met and that it should therefore be admitted. Does Australia believe and agree with that clause and provision of the resolution that the government chose to vote for?

Senator Wong: I know you want to operate in binaries, Senator. I’ve outlined our position. We chose to vote for the reasons I have outlined and for the reasons Mr Maclachlan and Ms McKenna have outlined. Notwithstanding some messaging by those who wish to make this a domestic political contest, the resolution did not bestow recognition. Membership can only occur, under the UN Charter, as a consequence of a decision made by the Security Council, and I have reserved the position of Australia in relation to bilateral recognition. So that is the position of the government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We’ll come to the bilateral recognition question in a moment.

Senator Wong: No. You can’t separate it out. You and I both know—you’ve been a minister. You know how resolutions are drafted and put forward. You know that a government has to make a call about the vote that is before it. I said after the vote: this wouldn’t be the resolution Australia proposed, but it is the resolution that the country had to make a decision about voting on, and our position is the one that has been outlined. We chose to support for the reasons Mr Maclachlan and Ms McKenna have outlined. We made clear, in the explanation of vote and in my public statements, what our position is on what is required for recognition. I understand there’s a lot of domestic politics you want to play with this, but there is a bigger issue, which is the tens of thousands of people who have died. This country, as a decent international player, needs to play our part in progressing the cause of peace. We are not a major player, but we are a respected voice. We took the decision, alongside many other countries, to support, to put in an EOV and to say, again, we will be guided, on recognition and on all things, by whether or not these decisions advance the cause of peace and progress towards a two-state solution.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m sure, Minister, you’re not implying that those countries who chose to vote against this resolution, or to abstain, are not acting in a decent way in advancement of the cause of peace as well.

Senator Wong: I didn’t say that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: They came to different conclusions, and that is why, when many of our like-minded partners—our closest ally, in the United States, but also others, including partners like Canada, with whom you’ve made significant joint statements—chose not to vote for this resolution, it is reasonable to try to understand where Australia’s point of difference lies.

Senator Wong: Sure.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And then, when you qualify—which is reasonable to do—the statements about why we voted for the resolution, it is also reasonable to try to understand the parts of the resolution that Australia does or does not support.

Senator Wong: The first part of your proposition is a straw-man argument that is, frankly, mischievous. Countries make their own decisions, and we coordinate and engage very closely with all. I’d also make the point that Japan, our special strategic partner, Korea, Singapore, New Zealand—you might want to try and suggest that we are somehow one out, but you and I both know that there are a lot of countries, including those who have traditionally taken a different view, who chose to support this resolution, or abstain. But I have been clear about our position, and I’d invite you to be clear about yours.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We do not believe at this point in time that there should be recognition bilaterally or admission to membership of the United Nations. I can be clear about that.

Senator Wong: Right, so—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, Minister; I have been careful not to interrupt you so far.

Senator Wong: Sure.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I can also be clear that we continue to support the longstanding—previously bipartisan—consensus of a negotiated two-state solution, and that requires, of course, settlement of boundaries, rights of return, security agreements and other challenging but important and critical issues if there is to be ongoing peace and stability between Israel and a future Palestinian state. But this is Senate estimates. I’ve responded to your question. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, because it is our opportunity to ask the government questions. I want to ask the question, Minister—

Senator Wong: No—I’m going to respond. You’ve responded and now I’ll respond.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Well, can you respond once I’ve asked a question, Minister?

Senator Wong: Well, I can respond to the first part before you ask a question. When Senator Sharma hosts the Australian Jewish Association in Parliament House to show the film Whose Land?—an association which believes in a one-state solution—that’s consistent with your policy position, is it?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister—

Senator Wong: Is a one-state solution your policy?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I have stated very clearly, as I have many times, our position—

Senator Wong: You want to talk about—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Unlike your government’s, our position has not changed.

CHAIR: Senators, let’s just get back to questions.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The coalition position has not change from what was a longstanding bipartisan position.

Senator Wong: That’s not true, actually.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The government’s position has changed.

Senator Wong: Well, yes, we have—

CHAIR: Senators, please.

Senator Wong: I’ll respond to that.

CHAIR: Can we just get some order back.

Senator Wong: Sure.

CHAIR: Thank you. Was there a question that you had?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I apologise for responding to Senator Wong’s question, Chair. We should stick to me asking the questions and the government answering them.

Senator Wong: There was a political statement made, which I’m going to respond to. The first is: you have changed the position unilaterally. That’s what Mr Morrison did when me unilaterally recognised Jerusalem ahead of any negotiations, and I notice now that you are also saying the same thing, so you have not held a consistent position. Secondly, Senator Sharma hosting an organisation, which has been disavowed by many other Jewish groups, that is for a one-state solution is inconsistent with your policy.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Do you want me to come back in here with the folder of comments from Mr Husic or Mr Bowen or members of your cabinet—

Senator Wong: I haven’t finished.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: who appear to freelance on the government’s position.

Senator Wong: I hadn’t finished.

CHAIR: Senators.

Senator Wong: You do what you wish in estimates, Senator Birmingham. It’s up to you how you want to use your time, but the third point I’d make is this. I appreciate this is a very contested domestic political issue. That’s why your government chose to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem ahead of any negotiation—without getting the advice of DFAT, as I recall. You were trying to win a by-election. It’s a position which you have now returned to. That is inconsistent with your own policy on a two-state solution—inconsistent. But, leaving aside all of the domestic politics, the world is witnessing a tragedy, and we have to do what we can to add our voice to the cause of peace. Whether it is the atrocities of 7 October, hostages still held or the tens of thousands of civilians—the millions of civilians—who are now sheltering in Rafah, where, as I said, they were told to go, we have to press for progress for a two-state solution. Secretary Cameron has recognised that.

That is the intention and the position we bring to these conversations and these considerations in the UN. Now, the resolution changed through the week. Obviously, we are supporters of the UN Charter, so we’re not going to be voting for things which are not consistent in that way.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, we all wish to see peace and we all wish to support measures to achieve it. How that is achieved, we may have differences on in terms of, particularly, some of these statements and some of these motions and whether or not they contribute. If you’re not going to respond to the particular motion, let me ask the question this way: should a state of Palestine, in the current environment at the current time, be admitted to membership of the United Nations?

Mr Maclachlan: The Security Council has determined that the answer is no.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What is Australia’s position?

Mr Maclachlan: Australia’s position is that the Security Council is the right forum in which to determine the answer to that question.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So you’re saying, Mr Maclachlan, that we have no position and we defer that position entirely to the members of the Security Council.

Mr Maclachlan: It is a question to which, unless we’re a member of the Security Council, we will not have a direct say in determining the outcome. It’s a question that the Security Council itself has considered most recently and, undoubtedly, will have another opportunity to consider that in the future at some point and may come to a different conclusion. But, at the moment, it’s determined the view on that question, and the answer is no.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the government made any representations to members of the Security Council about admission of the state of Palestine as a member?

Mr Maclachlan: The mission in New York, and our ambassador there, James Larsen, has been devoting a lot of time to this issue—as you know, the Middle East cuts across almost every issue at the UN—and spends a lot of time working with members of the Security Council and with members of the General Assembly to understand the issues that are being discussed and the actions that are being considered. It’s a regular part of his daily work and the work of the mission.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Again, Mr Maclachlan, that wasn’t really a response to my question. Has the government made any representations to members of the Security Council in relation to admission of a state of Palestine as a member of the UN?

Mr Maclachlan: Senator, we’ve engaged, and the mission in New York and the ambassador have engaged, with members of the Security Council in their considerations of the issues, to understand the position that each of them was going to take into that vote, to understand the dynamic and then to bring that information back to us so that we could make some assessments about the likely course of action and the implications it might have for the situation on the ground in the Middle East.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I understand that. That is a statement in relation to our engagement, ahead of the decision the government made to vote yes for the resolution we’ve been talking about. However, you have made it clear that, in relation to the government’s view about whether or not the state of Palestine should at present be admitted, it’s a matter for the Security Council. In relation to the Security Council’s deliberations, has the government made any representations to members of the Security Council advocating for one way or the other in relation to these matters?

Mr Maclachlan: I don’t believe so. If I could take that on notice to understand what instructions may have been given at the time, given that was quite a few weeks ago now.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has Australia received representations from members of the Security Council in relation to our position?

Mr Maclachlan: Again, I’ll take that on notice.

CHAIR: Thanks a lot, Senator Birmingham. I will come back to you, but I will move the call around. Senator Ghosh?

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