Tim Watts MP – opposing the Greens’ attempt to move a motion calling on the Government to end all military trade with Israel

Photo of Tim Watts MP
March 25, 2024

For the benefit of the House I will reiterate, in response to this motion, what the government has already made clear: Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since this conflict began and for at least the past five years.

Mr WATTS (GellibrandAssistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) (12:09): The Albanese government’s approach to the conflict following the Hamas terrorist attacks of 7 October has been consistent and it has been principled. Australia is not a central player in the Middle East or in the current conflict. We do, however, have a respected voice, and we have sought to use it with countries of influence in the region to advance our objectives. We’ve been clear that we want to see the release of hostages, we want to see the upholding of international law and we want to see the protection of civilians, and we’ve prosecuted this case with partners in the region.

There are differences of view in the Australian community with respect to this conflict. It’s unsurprising. Australia is a diverse country with people from a range of backgrounds and with a range of life experiences and a range of different perspectives. But, as a government, we’ve been clear that, as we prosecute these differences and work this through as a nation, the way we conduct this debate in our community about these differences matters.

Unfortunately, during this debate, regrettably we’ve seen people who claim to champion human rights and justice behaving in a way that shows little regard for either. Shocking attempts at intimidation and character assassination have become, unfortunately, characteristic of this debate. We’ve seen blatant antisemitism and Islamophobia. Some are intent on reproducing the hatred and social conflict of the Middle East here in our community, in Australia, pushing absolutist agendas ahead of the respectful and peaceful disagreement that a healthy democracy, particularly a diverse, multicultural Australian democracy, demands. Australia is not a country where you should be pushed to adopt an absolutist position on one side or another. We’re a pluralist country, allowing for many different viewpoints, where we are united by respect for each other’s humanity and for each other’s right to live in peace.

Regrettably, there are some in this country who seek to confect a direct connection between Australia and this conflict in order to raise the stakes of their own political campaigns in a way that is simply not justified by the facts. The motion before the House is a prime example of this. The facts with respect to the motion being moved today are clear and have been set out by the government on many occasions in this chamber, in the Senate and in Senate estimates. The foreign minister has spoken to this in Senate question time. Departmental officials have done so also in the last round of Senate estimates hearings. For the benefit of the House I will reiterate, in response to this motion, what the government has already made clear: Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since this conflict began and for at least the past five years. I understand that the Greens political party supports imposing a trade embargo on Israel, and it’s its prerogative to hold that position, but that is not the government’s position. We do not have a policy of boycotting all exports to Israel or of disengaging from Israel economically.

As the government has made clear previously, Australia has a stringent export control framework which is designed to ensure that our military and dual-use items are used responsibly outside of Australia. As the Deputy Prime Minister said on 1 February of this year:

Australia’s defence export control regime is one which is thorough and detailed as it applies to defence exports or dual-use items, to anywhere in the world.

The framework applies to a wide range of goods and technology, including items used for civilian and commercial purposes. So I’d remind members that export permits should not be confused with weapons sales. Defence undertakes a rigorous assessment of each export application, and this includes determining if there is an overriding risk that the export may be used in ways contrary to Australia’s national interests or our international obligations. If this risk is identified, Defence refuses the permit.

Australia is a party to and fully implements all major international arms control treaties, including the Arms Trade Treaty. The Albanese government is also taking proactive steps to reform and strengthen Australia’s export control framework, including through the Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill 2023, which will strengthen Australia’s export controls framework, and the Independent review of the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012, which was tabled, with the government response to it, on Wednesday 20 March.

We all have a responsibility in this place to ensure that our language does not rely on or convey misinformation, so I encourage members to consider the consequences of the language they use on this matter. Simply choosing to ignore the facts that have been presented repeatedly and promulgating a false narrative on this matter is only contributing to the divisions that we currently see in our community. Despite this, the Greens and others continue to disseminate misinformation and, frankly, encourage perpetuation of conspiracy theories on this conflict.

Some of the misinformation on this matter that I have seen shared in WhatsApp groups in my community and across the country since the outbreak of this conflict have been frankly farcical. There were claims that shipments of Bushmasters were on ships leaving Sydney Harbour, bound for the conflict, claims of ADF deployments to the region, sent as a contingency to assist in the consular evacuations of Australians and their families should the conflict spread in the region, and claims that those contingency deployments were engaged somehow to participate in this conflict. These false claims have consequences in our community. Inflammatory claims inflame community tensions. Extreme rhetoric encourages extreme actions. The Australian community is being tested by this conflict. We need to manage difference in a way that enables us to continue to get along as a community to ensure that diverse Australian schools, workplaces, sporting teams and community groups are able to continue to function as the diverse, harmonious groups that they have been in the past.

The least that we can ask from members in this chamber in facilitating this is that the debate be informed by the facts, not by misinformation or insinuations. I noted the member for Griffith’s comments on humanitarian assistance to the region in this respect—the claim that the Australian government had suspended all humanitarian assistance in this conflict. This is one of those classic distortions of reality designed to inflame tensions. Since 7 October the Australian government has contributed $52.5 million of humanitarian assistance to the Middle East, consistent with that objective that I talked about before—to protect civilian life. That $52.5 million does not include the doubling of funding to UNRWA, announced on coming into government, so it doesn’t include the $20 million provided to UNRWA before this conflict commenced. The $6 million of additional support to UNRWA that was announced following the foreign minister’s visit to the region earlier this year was suspended—

Mr Chandler-Mather: There you go.

Mr WATTS: in response to very grave allegations of involvement of UNRWA staff members in the 7 October terrorist attacks. We acted in response to UNRWA’s actions of dismissing staff who were alleged to have been involved in that, initiating review processes. None of that should take away from the fact that, of that $52.5 million provided for humanitarian assistance in this conflict, only $6 million was suspended in response to grave threats.

Mr Chandler-Mather interjecting

Mr WATTS: The member for Griffith giggles, snorts and chortles, but those are the facts. There was $46 million provided for humanitarian support, which he, for his own partisan political purposes, pretends didn’t happen. If he had any integrity, he would stand up in this place and withdraw the false claim that he made in the moving of this suspension. He won’t withdraw, though, because deliberately inflammatory claims like that, which are misinformation and not based on the facts, are part of his political campaign. He sees votes on this issue. The Australian government sees a terrible humanitarian crisis. We see a conflict in the Middle East—

Mr Chandler-Mather interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Vasta ): Order! The minister has the call.

Mr WATTS: that will be resolved only through peace building through the parties. We respect the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and the Palestinian people to live side by side within their own states and with internationally recognised borders in peace and security. The only way we’ll realise that is through peace building, not through divisive partisan political campaigning.

The SPEAKER: The question is that the motion be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

The SPEAKER: As there are fewer than five members on the side for the ayes in this division, I declare the question negated in accordance with standing order 127. The names of those members who are in the minority will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.

Question negatived.

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