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

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
June 3, 2024

Does the government support the United States’s exercise of its veto in the Security Council over the resolution to recommend the state of Palestine be admitted to membership?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’ll continue to a degree from where we were. Does the government support the United States’s exercise of its veto in the Security Council over the resolution to recommend the state of Palestine be admitted to membership?

Mr Maclachlan: The actions of the United States are the actions of the United States. It’s not really a question of whether or not we support their actions. But, as you would appreciate, there’s been a longstanding position with regard to the veto and its use in the UN Security Council. It’s not something that Australia has supported in a general sense.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I might need you to unpack that for me a little bit please. The exercise of the veto is not something that Australia has supported in a general sense. What are you referring to there, Mr Maclachlan, and how does that reflect upon current considerations?

Mr Maclachlan: I’m going to ask my colleague.

Senator Wong: I think Mr Maclachlan was speaking about the discussion that’s occurring in the UN regarding the use of the veto, which obviously is an important part of the charter, but we have also seen Russia utilise it in a way which is damaging to the UN system. I think Ms Robinson can assist.

Ms Robinson : In general, we’ve been a very strong supporter of initiatives that look for transparency and more governance around UN Security Council decisions, including, in particular, on the use of the veto. In general, that’s been our policy.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We could probably dedicate a long session to potential UN reforms and, of course, discussions about other potential members of the Security Council and all of those deliberations, most of which are probably unlikely to go anywhere in a hurry.

Senator Wong: I think the point we have to remember is that Russia is using its privileged position as a permanent member and its veto to block and prevent action being taken in relation to their abrogation of the UN Charter. So, as a country that has an interest in the international system operating effectively, we have a very strong interest in trying to find a path through that enables the system to work more effectively and to try and resolve or at least ensure there is sufficient accountability for that type of use of the veto.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Again, obviously, there are a range of debates that can be had about the use of the veto on matters of self-interest by a P5 member versus matters of other interests and how that may apply. I’ve got no doubt those debates will ensue. To bring us back to the question I posed, has Australian, has the government expressed any view or made any representations to the United States in relation to its exercise of the veto on Palestinian statehood and its membership at the United Nations?

Mr Maclachlan: No, not that I am aware of.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: For clarity—because we went into a broader discussion about general use and veto powers—in relation to this use of the veto power by the United States on the question of granting the state of Palestine full membership of the United Nations, does Australia have a position?

Senator Wong: Do we have a position on what the United States should do?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Do we support their use of the veto?

Senator Wong: The US position is long standing. As Mr Maclachlan said, it is their historical position. What the US determines is in their national interest is entirely legitimate; it is up to them. Whatever party is in government makes a decision about their national interest. To be frank, this has been a position the US has held consistently. Australia has to determine our own national interest, and I’ve outlined it.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I will ask the question, because of course we did just reflect upon the inappropriate use of the veto and Australia opposing the use of the veto by Russia, for example. They are different circumstances, not reflecting on a matter germane to their own country, but that’s why I am asking about the US and whether Australia has a position on that use of the veto.

Senator Wong: Australia’s position is reflected in our public statements and in our vote. My point about the Russian use of the veto is that I don’t think we as an international community had contemplated a permanent member of the Security Council using the veto to justify breach of the charter. I think that is a use of the veto of a different order, which wasn’t contemplated. I think there was an assumption that countries might behave in accordance with the charter. Nobody is suggesting anyone else at the moment is doing that—well, there’s North Korea.

Ms Robinson : Can I add that the US use of the veto did trigger a discussion in the UN General Assembly 10 days after that. We spoke at that session, and we thanked the US for giving their explanation on why they used the veto on this occasion.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did we express any other opinion?

Ms Robinson : We expressed our longstanding support for the veto initiative, and we thanked the US for explaining their position. It was a very short statement.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Would Australia support full UN membership of a Palestinian state ahead of bilateral recognition?

Senator Wong: That’s a hypothetical, as evinced by the fact you started with the word ‘would’.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is that a matter that has been assessed by the department?

Senator Wong: That’s another way of asking the same question.

Ms Adams : No.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There’s been no assessment of supporting full UN membership, separate to the question of bilateral recognition?

Ms Adams : As has been mentioned before, when you work with partners in the context of a UN vote, it’s very much about negotiating the terms of a resolution and understanding the perspectives of others. So, no, the department would not be working on hypothetical potential future votes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are there different considerations for the government in the question of full UN membership versus that of bilateral recognition?

Senator Wong: Yes. I’ve said that—perhaps not in a Simon Birmingham way; in a Penny Wong way.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What, in a ‘government position’ way, are the different considerations between full UN membership and bilateral recognition?

Senator Wong: First, in relation to full UN membership, we support the UN Charter. I refer back to Mr Maclachlan’s point about the role of the UN Security Council in relation to membership. That remains our position. In relation to the second, I have spoken about the separate consideration of bilateral recognition, which I think is sensible—to do what, I think, Korea and Japan have done, which is to consider the issue of bilateral recognition separately from a UN position. I have said a number of things about that, which I referred to in my earlier answer.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I want to turn to those questions of bilateral recognition. Ambassador Larsen said in the deliberations on 10 May, ‘Australia no longer accepts that recognition can only come at the end of the peace process.’ You have reflected that in your remarks, including the speech you gave prior to his statement of 10 May. Can you be clear for us: what are the preconditions for recognition?

Senator Wong: The fundamental precondition is whether it will advance the course of peace and progress towards a two-state solution. That is the overriding precondition. Other than that, I’ve raised a number of issues that we would look to, and the position we’ve taken is consistent with the thinking and the position that, for example, Secretary Cameron has outlined. What is it that we can do to progress a pathway out of this conflict?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Ambassador Larsen further stated, ‘Direct negotiations will be needed on final status issues, including borders.’ How is recognition possible before finalisation of agreed and settled borders?

Mr Maclachlan: In a general sense, there are examples of countries around the world that we have recognised and that others recognise where the status of their borders is undergoing contest. Most pronounced at the moment would be the contest going on in Ukraine, I would have thought, but there are other places.

Senator Wong: The border between India and China is still a contested border. But, Senator, there are core issues which are final status issues which do have to be negotiated between the parties. They would include the status of Jerusalem and the final borders of a future state, which is why it’s so disappointing that you’re reverting to the Morrison era of unilateral recognition of West Jerusalem. You’re undermining your own argument by predetermining a final status issue. I think there are other pressing issues, including the governance reforms I’ve described or the need for the parties to be led in a way that is consistent with two states living side by side. That’s incumbent on both sides.

I think the point is here—and I appreciate how this gets played into domestic politics. When David Cameron spoke about recognition not necessarily being at the end of the process but could be an input to the process—that is consistent with some of the discussion from the EOV, the explanation of vote, in the United Nations Security Council—what he is articulating is the same thinking that Australia and many other countries are engaging in, which is: what is it that we can do to advance the cause of peace? If there can be a peace process of which recognition is a path, what we are signalling is that we are willing to look at that. But that’s not where we are at this stage.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How does earlier recognition help to resolve final status issues?

Senator Wong: How does recognising Jerusalem resolve a final status issue?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, is this going to be the response—if there’s a difficult question, you’ll turn it back to a question for me?

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham.

Senator Wong: No. I think there is some inconsistency and hypocrisy from that side of the table, frankly. You choose to be critical on an issue where your own party is the one that is most obviously determining a final status issue. We haven’t determined a final status issue. But we are saying, if there is a pathway to peace which involves a pathway to recognition by other countries as part of assuring that pathway to peace, we are open to that discussion with the international community.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay.

Senator Wong: We’ve said that we are guided by whether recognition will advance the cause of peace and progress towards a two-state solution. I think that is a sensible and ethical position.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, again, can I ask the question how does earlier recognition advance the resolution of final status issues?

Senator Wong: I refer to my previous answers.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Can you provide a rational—

Senator Wong: No, I’ve answered that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: for how that would be the case?

Senator Wong: I have answered this a number of times. I’ve explained our position on recognition.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’ve explained the position. I’m seeking to understand how it would advance resolution of those final status issues?

Senator Wong: I’ll refer to my previous answers. I’ve responded to all of those things.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’ve also said that any future Palestinian state cannot be in a position to threaten Israel’s security.

Senator Wong: Correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How will the government judge when Hamas no longer poses a threat?

Senator Wong: Along with the rest of the international community, we’ll make the appropriate judgement. What you’re asking us to do, in an estimates hearing, is to deal with the extremely challenging and difficult diplomatic security and legal issues which will obviously be part of any discussion. But I, again, come back to the fundamental point, which is the issue of Australia’s interests and values. Surely we should be doing whatever we can to sensibly advance the cause of peace. That’s what we’re seeking to do.

I don’t think the cause of peace is advanced by the sorts of violent and aggressive protests we’ve seen, the divisive language that we’ve seen or the domestic politics that we see. I think the cause of peace—and progress towards it—is best advanced by considering how we can use our voice and how we, Australia, can play a part in the international community seeking to try and find a pathway to peace in relation to a conflict which has been ongoing for decades. We know how intractable this problem—I would call it a ‘conflict’—is, and we should do what we can, recognising that, whilst we aren’t the central player, as I said we’re a respected voice and we have a part to play alongside others.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, will the government guarantee no bilateral recognition where Hamas remains in any position of governance or influence?

Senator Wong: I’ve said that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. We see no role for them.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes. You’ve said, ‘There is no role for Hamas in a future Palestinian state.’ They are the words that you’ve said. Will there be no recognition of a Palestinian state if Hamas is in a governance role?

Senator Wong: I’ve outlined the approach we would take in relation to recognition, which includes the comments I’ve made in relation to Hamas and the importance of the security of the State of Israel.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’ve reviewed those comments, and I’m using this forum to seek clarification of those comments. So, when you say, ‘There is no role for Hamas in a future Palestinian state’—

Senator Wong: That’s what I mean.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So there will be no recognition by Australia if Hamas remains in any position of governance?

Senator Wong: I’m not going to be drawn into questions of detail around negotiations around which we are not party to. But Australia’s position is that Hamas should have no role in a future Palestinian state, and that is one of the things that I have outlined in the context of any consideration of bilateral recognition.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It’s Australia’s position that I am asking you about and about the decisions that your government may or may not take in relation to bilateral recognition and understanding what the precondition may be for that decision by the Australian government about Hamas’s role.

Senator Wong: I know that you and others tried to paint the UN vote as supportive of Hamas. That’s a remarkably irresponsible thing to do and inaccurate. I know that you want to reduce everything to binaries. I’m going to read and outline again our position:

… we will be guided by whether recognition will advance the cause of peace—

and progress towards a two-state solution.

Australia no longer sees recognition as only occurring at the end of negotiations.

That is a position consistent, for example, with the United Kingdom and Germany.

It could occur as part of a peace process, and once there is progress on governance reforms and security concerns.

We see no role for Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organisation. A Palestinian state cannot be in a position to threaten Israel’s security.

We want to see a reformed Palestinian governing authority that is committed to peace, that disavows violence and is ready to engage in a meaningful political process. We want to see a commitment to peace in how the Palestinian Authority leads its people.

The final status of core issues such as Jerusalem and the borders of a future Palestinian state should be defined through direct negotiations.

That is the government’s position.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Minister. You’ve been trying to ensure that nobody can misinterpret your language in relation to the statement that there is no role for Hamas in a future Palestinian state, particularly when it comes to the question of how the government will make a decision about recognition. Can you be clear-cut in terms of stating that, if Hamas remains in positions of governance, there will be no recognition?

Senator Wong: I refer to my previous answer. Hamas is a terrorist organisation. We see no role for them.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Then why won’t you be clear-cut in stating that there will be no recognition if Hamas remains in any position of governance?

Senator Wong: I am being clear, and I’m referring to my previous answers.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’re referring to a form of words. I’m seeking a clear answer to what I think is a pretty clear question. If Hamas remains in any position of governance, will the government rule out recognition?

CHAIR: I think it’s fair to say that the minister has responded—

Senator Wong: Frequently.

CHAIR: so I’ll have to ask you to move along. Otherwise, I’ll have to move the call along.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What are the reforms the Australian government wants to see to the Palestinian authority?

Mr Innes-Brown : I think it’s generally recognised amongst the international community that the Palestinian authority needs to make some changes to how it administers itself and also in terms of some of its public positioning. It needs to be able to reform its financial arrangements. It’s obviously under a lot of pressure financially, and part of that is due to the position that Israel has taken on taxation revenue. But, even so, they need to reorganise themselves to better manage with the available envelope of money that they have. They need to continue to prepare themselves, in terms of their administrative structures and leadership, to take on the responsibility of the eventual management of a Palestinian state.

At the moment, the Palestinian authority is obviously not administering Gaza—it’s administering the West Bank—and it obviously needs to prepare for that eventuality as well in terms of its structures and its organisation. There’s obviously a capability. It needs to enhance the leadership and the administrative skills of the various organs of the Palestinian authority to be able to take on those responsibilities.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are there any processes underway to effectively achieve those reforms?

Mr Innes-Brown : There’s been renewed discussion about this need in recent months. The conflict, I guess, has brought a sharper focus onto the need to enhance the capability. I know the United States has been very clear in talking to the Palestinian leadership. There have been some changes in personnel at senior levels in the Palestinian authority, so there’s a discussion—the United States is certainly looking at that. Key Arab partners, including Jordan, are working on that. The United Kingdom and Canada have also lent their voice, wishing to support processes that do lead to an enhancement of the capability of the Palestinian authority.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Can I just go back to the UN vote, briefly. The Attorney-General’s Department and the Office of International Law confirmed in hearings last Friday that they were not asked to provide advice in relation to the UN vote. In fact, when asked whether the vote itself constituted recognition, I think they, ultimately, took the question on notice. Why weren’t the Office of International Law and the AGD consulted?

Ms McKenna : We informed our colleagues in the Attorney-General’s Department of the work that we were undertaking in the context of the proposed resolution. Under the Commonwealth Legal Services Directions, both the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are tied providers of international law advice. We work very closely with our AGD colleagues. In some instances we advise jointly. In other instances it is the AGD itself that advises. In this instance, consistent with longstanding practice when it comes to UN General Assembly resolutions and resolutions under negotiation in various UN fora, it was DFAT that advised.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Were any other agencies consulted?

Mr Innes-Brown : Certainly. We were also talking to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about the work we were doing.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was the decision a ministerial decision or a cabinet decision?

Senator Wong: This was a decision with some weight. There are obviously a lot of multilateral fora decisions which are made, most of which don’t get much attention. But this one obviously was a serious and complex issue. We gave very close consideration to our vote. As I said, Australia was guided by our determination to do what we can to help build momentum towards a two-slate solution. The reason for that is our firm belief that that is the only pathway to long-term peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Given this, as is appropriate, we ensured the full discussion of this matter at the most senior levels of the government, including, as I said, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and me. The Prime Minister has made some comments on this too. In relation to cabinet, as you know, we don’t discuss what went to cabinet and what was discussed in cabinet, but I can assure you that this was fully discussed at the most senior levels of the government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The reason for framing the question the way I did, in terms of whether it was a ministerial decision or a cabinet decision, was to simply ascertain if the point of decision does then go to whether or not you may make PII claims or otherwise.

Senator Wong: Who gives instructions? I give instructions.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So there was a ministerial decision. You consulted with, as you’ve indicated, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.

Senator Wong: What I’ve said was that it was full discussion at the most senior levels of the government, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and me. But, as a matter of process, the instruction for vote is given by the foreign minister.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How did Hamas respond to the resolution?

Senator Wong: I don’t make a habit of engaging with Hamas.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: They made public statements. Did the government brief on those public statements?

Senator Wong: Did the government—?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did the department brief you on those public statements of Hamas?

Mr Maclachlan: I don’t recall.

Senator Wong: I have two points. Firstly, I’m not in the business of amplifying Iranian and Hamas propaganda. I’m surprised you are, in an estimates hearing. Secondly, there’s the answer to the question that Mr Innes-Brown gave. I know you wish to try and politically paint this as something around Hamas. Hamas is fundamentally opposed to a two-state solution, so the whole logic of this resolution is progress towards two states and progress towards Palestinian recognition—that is, alongside the State of Israel. The resolution has a number of paragraphs which go to a number of points, which go to two states. That is entirely contrary to Hamas’ beliefs.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yet, contrary to your assertions about the way in which this resolution would be viewed, Hamas welcomed it, didn’t they?

Senator Wong: I don’t tend to read Hamas propaganda.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I read news reports, Minister.

Senator Wong: Of Hamas propaganda. That’s a matter for you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Well, news reports on servers right around the world, Minister, including many that I’m sure appeared in your clips.

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham, I’m going to move the call along. I’m happy to come back to you, but I’m going to hand the call over to Senator Steele-John, then we’ll go to a break. After the break I’ll return the call to you.

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