Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions relating to communication with Israeli counterparts; Australia’s assistance for the aid pontoon in Gaza; and calls for Israel to be excluded from the World Cup

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
June 3, 2024

On the Middle East: when did the Prime Minister and the minister last speak with their Israeli counterparts?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: On the Middle East: when did the Prime Minister and the minister last speak with their Israeli counterparts?

Senator Wong: ‘Speak’ or communicate?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m happy to take both.

Senator Wong: Can I take it on notice so we can get you the correct dates, because there was—oh, you’ve got them, have you?

Mr Innes-Brown : I think I’ve got them, believe it or not! The Prime Minister and the foreign minister spoke to their counterparts, following the death of the World Central Kitchen workers in early April, on 2 and 3 April.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So they were the last conversations had between the PM and the ministers and foreign ministers?

Mr Innes-Brown : By telephone, I think.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: There’s been communication, correspondence—is it subsequent?

Mr Innes-Brown : If you include letters in that, yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes. There was a letter on Friday last week.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Could we detail the points of communication since 2 April and 3 April, please?

Senator Wong: We’ll take that on notice, because it would be letters as well as messages, I think. So I’d like to take that on notice. Obviously, there are a number of key points: the World Central Kitchen issue, the UN decisions, the attack by Iran and also the most recent Rafah strike—we’ll provide that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. Has the Australian government received any requests for particular assistance by the United States or other countries in relation to responses to the conflict in Gaza?

Senator Wong: That’s a very general question. Can you be more specific?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Have we received requests for assistance?

Senator Wong: Do you mean diplomatic coordination? What do you mean by ‘assistance’?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: No, I mean practical assistance—obviously, it would be humanitarian assistance.

Mr Maclachlan: Without knowing the precise detail, I can say that there was an invitation to assist the US in the work to establish the Mulberry harbour at Gaza—the pontoon to enable the maritime aid. Sorry, I can’t recall the precise timing of that, but I’ll take that on notice and come back to you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay.

Senator Wong: Perhaps we could take it on notice. Some of this might have been ADF or defence related, rather than humanitarian or diplomatic. That’s why I was trying to clarify what you meant.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Sure. We’ll see what Mr Maclachlan and Mr Innes-Brown can at least help with there. Mr Maclachlan, aside from broader requests that Australia has contributed to in terms of humanitarian assistance or those types of financial contributions we’ve made, to your knowledge the only specific request for assistance from a partner was a US request for help in building the temporary pontoon or harbour that the US has established? This is the one built for aid collected in Cyprus and transferred. Is that correct?

Mr Maclachlan: As part of that effort to facilitate.

Mr Innes-Brown : Can I recall your question? Did you say from the United States? Or more broadly?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I did ask initially more broadly; I think I used the US as an example, but that’s not exclusive.

Mr Innes-Brown : Okay. I think we’ll have to take it on notice. There’s obviously a very active ongoing conversation about needs and responses. For completeness, in terms of taking account of every conversation and every request for practical assistance, for instance, for the humanitarian response, I think we’d better go away and look at our records.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I would appreciate you doing that, Mr Innes-Brown. Thank you. As I said, I expect that in the most part, given the nature of the war to date, it’s either funding or medical supplies or the type of humanitarian assistance that we would usually be seeking. I would appreciate any detail you can provide there in terms of other practical efforts. Whether you call it a wharf or a pontoon—you used both words, Mr Maclachlan—that is one that you do recall.

Mr Innes-Brown : I can recall a couple of others. My memory is working a bit better now! It is late in the day. As an example, we did receive requests from Jordan and the UAE for help with parachutes, and we responded positively to those. We have, via Defence, provided aerial delivery systems to them, which they were very appreciative of.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think I recall that announcement.

Senator Wong: That was first raised on my visit. Mr Innes-Brown is right that there has been quite a deal of engagement with partners. How much of it is requests, how much of it is their views or their advice or their perspectives helping shape what we provide—for example, we’ve provided some funding to Ms Kaag, whose title is humanitarian coordinator—

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, $2 million.

Senator Wong: because of where things were in terms of UNRWA and the need for deconfliction, which is a tragic point given what happened subsequently with World Central Kitchen. She certainly identified that deconfliction imperative correctly. How we have tried to deal with this in terms of the various requests, whether it’s dealt with in our portfolio or Defence, is to engage with partners in the region and other like-mindeds. What do you want us to do on notice? It has been a pretty general discussion. Some of it is Defence. Or have you got enough—she says, trying to avoid getting another question on notice!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I would appreciate Mr Innes-Brown providing a list of specific requests outside of contributions to humanitarian assistance funds. Specific requests that have been made of Australia for assistance or engagement.

Mr Innes-Brown : That’s clear. Thank you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Let’s go to the pontoon/harbour for a moment. The request to Australia was to assist in the construction of that or the operation of it?

Mr Maclachlan: It was more for support services. The construction of the harbour has been done by the US—that’s my understanding.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It was for support services?

Mr Maclachlan: I’ll take it on notice. I’ll make sure we are absolutely precise in what we give you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is this still a live request, or has Australia responded to it?

Mr Maclachlan: I will take it on notice and make sure I’m very precise.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I want precision, certainly, Mr Maclachlan, but I’m also just keen to understand. If it were a live request, I would assume you would know about and be thinking about it at present, as distinct from if it’s something we said we can’t or won’t do.

Mr Maclachlan: You will have an opportunity, when Defence appears before the committee, to put the question to them. They may be able to give you an update because it was a request that we were aware of, but we understood it was a request Defence would be handling.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So it involved capabilities, at least, that Defence would have to provide for support services in the operation of that relief effort?

Mr Maclachlan: Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We will consider Defence placed on notice in terms of understanding what that was a request for, when it came in and the status of it. Thanks, Mr Maclachlan. Back to the 2 April and 3 April calls between prime ministers and foreign ministers. Did they include advice of the Albanese government’s intention to appoint Mr Binskin as special adviser, or did that come subsequent to those calls?

Mr Maclachlan: That was conveyed in correspondence by the foreign minister and the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 April.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That was after Mr Binskin had been chosen and appointed, in terms of that being conveyed on 5 April, Mr Maclachlan?

Mr Maclachlan: No. As I recall, Mr Binskin was announced on 8 April.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay, so the intent to appoint a special adviser was conveyed on 5 April and then there was subsequent advice that Mr Binskin had been chosen?

Mr Maclachlan: That is correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was that concept foreshadowed in the calls of 2 and 3 April or were those calls purely dealing with the expression of Australia’s initial concerns at the deaths that had occurred?

Mr Maclachlan: I can’t speak for the Prime Minister’s call. As I recall, in the case of the foreign minister’s call, it was to express our very grave concern about the events that led to the death of Ms Frankom and her six colleagues.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was there an exchange at all in relation to the appointment of a special adviser between Australia and Israel, or did we simply advise Israel that that is what the Australian government was doing?

Mr Maclachlan: As I’ve indicated, on 5 April the intent was conveyed very clearly and explicitly in the correspondence from the foreign minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to their counterparts. Mr Binskin was announced. As I’ve already provided in evidence to the committee today, the Israeli government—both the ambassador here and the Israeli government—have cooperated very helpfully with Mr Binskin in the discharge of his duties.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Mr Maclachlan, for that.

Senator Wong: We do acknowledge the access and cooperation that Mr Binskin has had, and we appreciate it.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. I think I picked that up at during earlier questioning. I note that acknowledgement and that Mr Binskin’s report is not yet finalised to government. Has the government made any decisions in relation to the handling of that report when it is received?

Senator Wong: I gave an answer—you may have been out of the room—to Senator Faruqi about that. We will wait until we get the report to consider how, because we are very aware of the need or the call—the expectation in the community—for transparency, so we will make those decisions accordingly. But I would say I would be very happy to ensure you are appropriately briefed.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Minister. What engagement has the department had, if any, with Football Federation of Australia regarding Palestinian Football Association’s petition calling for Israel to be excluded from the World Cup?

Mr Maclachlan: I understand there has been some contact. It was not by me directly. It’s not from people within my group. I’ll have to take on notice the detail of that and come back to you.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Which group would it be if it wasn’t your group, Mr MacLachlan?

Mr Innes-Brown : I think we better check the detail. I think one of my staff may have had a conversation with Football Australia but I would need to double-check that. As I recall, the tenor of the conversation was more about they were just checking in about the issue and briefing us on the situation—that this matter could be considered in a forthcoming meeting.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So, essentially, they were briefing you?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, it was a conversation. My recollection is that it was a matter for them. They were not seeking our policy. My recollection is—and I will check it—that they were not seeking a position from us.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the government expressed any views to FFA about this issue with FIFA and the approach Australia should take in relation to it?

Mr Innes-Brown : I think the government has been clear. There was a statement that we are opposed to any boycotts that may be directed at Israel, including in this context.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Including in this context?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, which is our general position.

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