Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Government action to combat anti-Semitism; engagement with the Jewish community and UNRWA funding

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
February 12, 2024

There has been a particular, well-documented rise in antisemitism and antisemitic actions since the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks of 7 October. Things such as the Nazi symbol’s ban were in train prior to that. The funding that you referenced from last estimates is largely funding for security-type services—that’s welcome and important, but in essence a response to the threats posed by antisemitism. What leadership and action is being shown to seek to counter antisemitic attitudes and to educate and overcome those attitudes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’ll take that as ‘no, you can’t point to anything he’s done, either,’ in the absence of a direct answer to the question. I have some questions about antisemitism. What leadership roles are PM&C and the Commonwealth playing in relation to combatting the rise of antisemitism?

Ms Hefren-Webb : We work closely with a range of departments, including the Department of Home Affairs, in relation to social cohesion. You are aware, as we discussed last time, that there have been a number of activities undertaken to support multicultural communities, particularly the Jewish community, in the current set of circumstances. Work is also under way on an antiracism strategy that’s being undertaken by the Human Rights Commission. There has also been legislation, as you’re well aware, in relation to Nazi symbols and so forth. There’s a range of activities that are happening across departments. We work with those departments and through the normal processes of government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There has been a particular, well-documented rise in antisemitism and antisemitic actions since the horrific Hamas terrorist attacks of 7 October. Things such as the Nazi symbol’s ban were in train prior to that. The funding that you referenced from last estimates is largely funding for security-type services—that’s welcome and important, but in essence a response to the threats posed by antisemitism. What leadership and action is being shown to seek to counter antisemitic attitudes and to educate and overcome those attitudes.

Ms Hefren-Webb : In the broader context, there’s the work by the Human Rights Commission on an antiracism strategy, and their interim report is due in March.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When did that work commence?

Ms Hefren-Webb : I believe that work commenced in the middle of last year.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So, again, prior to 7 October, and it’s broader work, as you identify. Is there anything in relation to particular initiatives, action and leadership shown to counter and overcome the rise in antisemitic commentary and actions?

Ms Hefren-Webb : As I said, a range of departments and ministers have responsibilities here, and the Minister for Home Affairs has portfolio lead on social cohesion. She is engaged regularly with community leaders, as is the minister for immigration. The Attorney-General is progressing, as we previously mentioned, the legislation around Nazi symbols and work on hate speech et cetera. There’s a lot of activity occurring across government. Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the Prime Minister addressed the issue of antisemitism with National Cabinet?

Ms Hefren-Webb : In relation to National Cabinet there has been some discussion about community cohesion issues. There are likely to be further discussions on this topic next time National Cabinet meets as well. We have a range of mechanisms underneath National Cabinet, including the secretaries committee, the First Secretaries Group, where these issues are discussed. We have a special national security meeting under National Cabinet where we talk to states and territories about a range of security issues. Antisemitism is certainly being discussed in those contexts as well.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Dutton wrote to the Prime Minister last year suggesting that combating the rise in antisemitism should be specifically listed as an agenda item for National Cabinet. Are you aware of that correspondence?

Ms Hefren-Webb : I’m personally not aware of it, but some of my staff might well be aware of that correspondence.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Why wasn’t countering antisemitism specifically listed as a particular topic for discussion in the National Cabinet?

Ms Hefren-Webb : The Prime Minister would have a range of discussions with his state and territory colleagues in other forums. He speaks to them frequently. I’m sure he’s discussed that matter with them on other occasions. But there was a very full agenda for the last National Cabinet on health reform, NDIS reform and, as we just spoke about, the national gun register. As I said, there’s a lot of activity across government on this work. Putting an agenda item in National Cabinet is one way to progress discussions on a topic, but it’s not the only way. The Prime Minister will make a decision about that in due course.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It’s also one way to provide strong, symbolic, national leadership in terms of the statement by the Prime Minister and all the first ministers of the nation. It can be of power and significant influence in terms of addressing the issue and giving it priority. It’s not always about the detail of the national gun register reform but can also be about the importance of Australia’s leaders making a clear and coherent statement on something of importance. Wouldn’t this have been done, and done effectively, through National Cabinet?

Ms Hefren-Webb : The Prime Minister has spoken very clearly and expressly about how horrified he is at the rise of antisemitism. I don’t think he could have been clearer on that point and I don’t think anyone has any doubt about his views on that point. As to whether an item is listed on the agenda for National Cabinet or not, I don’t think it is relevant to whether there’s a strong statement of national leadership from the Prime Minister—which he has made.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are any of your officials able to confirm that PM&C has received, or logged, the letter from Mr Dutton dated 14 November?

Ms Steel : Yes, I confirm that we have received that correspondence. I’ll have to take on notice if there’s any response under way.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Surely PM&C would have drafted a response by now.

Ms Steel : It depends on whether there were other matters that needed to be considered in a similar response, but again, I don’t have the details with me. We’d need to take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You know the letter’s been received. Presumably it’s in your group, Ms Steel. You know it’s been received and been logged, but you are unaware as to whether a response has been drafted.

Ms Steel : I’m unaware of where it is up to. This is a type of topic we consult widely on, in terms of other policy areas of PM&C, with other departments as relevant. So I will take on notice where that’s up to.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: To your knowledge, has a draft been provided to the PMO?

Ms Steel : I don’t know, Senator. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It seems surprising that PM&C wouldn’t have provided a draft by now. What about the correspondence from Jewish community organisations to the Prime Minister dated 19 December? Were you aware of that particular correspondence, which raised concerns about the employment by UNWRA and engagement of UNWRA staff in the 7 October attacks?

Ms Hefren-Webb : I’m not aware. That might have gone to my colleagues in the international area. I don’t know if they have visibility about that correspondence, but if it was about the attacks in Israel I suspect it’s gone to that part of the department. I don’t know whether Mr Chittick—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Chittick is on his way back.

Mr Chittick : I guess it really depends on where the central part of the department sent the letter. Let me take that on notice and follow up.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’re aware of the letter to which I’m referring, Mr Chittick? It was the letter of 19 December from a collection of Jewish community organisations, particularly raising concerns about UNWRA staff or engagement in the 7 October attacks.

Mr Chittick : Let me refer to some notes here. It is resonating with me now. I think I have some notes here on that, but I want to be certain before I give you any definitive advice on that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’d be surprised if you didn’t.

Mr Chittick : Let me take that on notice. I may be able to get back to you before we conclude here this evening.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: If you can find any reference to that correspondence, whether a draft reply has been prepared; if not, why not; if so, when it was transmitted, that would be helpful.

Mr Chittick : I think I may have found the reference I was after. Is this the letter from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think it was a collection of organisations. But I would expect AIJAC to have been one of them.

Mr Chittick : The advice I have here is that the PMO received this letter on 20 December and referred the letter to Minister Wong for response.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: They referred the letter to Minister Wong for response. Would PM&C be advised when a response is provided, or, once it’s dispatched to another department, ‘Minister, that’s the end of it’?

Mr Chittick : Let me follow up on that. We became aware of it as it was administered through the department’s correspondence system, but it was referred to the foreign minister for response on 20 December.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In the ordinary course of events, would you know if it had been responded to?

Mr Chittick : I don’t know, but let me take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay. Thank you. Was that letter ever drawn to the Prime Minister’s attention?

Mr Chittick : Senator, I don’t know the answer to that. It was the Prime Minister’s office that referred the letter to Minister Wong.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was any briefing, to your knowledge, ever sought by the Prime Minister’s office in relation to the very serious allegations put that UNWRA staff had been involved in some way in the 7 October attacks?

Mr Chittick : When the letter was referred to Minister Wong’s office, that became some work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did you see that letter, Mr Chittick, or within your department was it seen before being referred by the PMO?

Mr Chittick : Not before being referred, but we had visibility of it as it was referred through PM&C’s ministerial parliamentary unit.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Given the grave nature of the allegations contained in that letter, did PM&C seek any further briefing or to understand what action or steps DFAT were taking?

Mr Chittick : I was on leave at that time and so I don’t have any personal recollection of it. But let me take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are there any other records associated with or actions that have occurred in relation to the allegations made in that letter?

Mr Chittick : Let me take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay. How and when did PM&C become involved in the decision to pause UNWRA funding?

Mr Chittick : Humanitarian assistance program funding, including UNWRA funding, is a decision for the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Surely, before the decision to pause that funding was announced publicly, the PM and PM&C would have been advised.

Mr Chittick : I don’t have a record of DFAT having consulted PM&C in advance of that. We were advised after the decision had been made.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Your recollection is you were advised after the decision had been made?

Mr Chittick : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And there had been no engagement with your US counterparts or the like, as obviously different countries were seemingly dealing in fairly close flow-on from one another with the decision to pause funding.

Senator Ayres: That does sound to me like a question that could usefully be directed to the minister.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Since 7 October, has PM&C had any engagement in terms of assessment of the allegations against UNWRA employees?

Mr Chittick : Since the minister’s decision to temporarily pause funding, we have been engaged with DFAT, which is the department that’s responsible for the humanitarian program. I don’t have anything more to add to the minister’s public comments, including on the 7.30 program.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. We will pursue those further, no doubt, with DFAT. Did the Prime Minister receive a request from the United States for Australia to contribute to operations in the Red Sea?

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