Tim Watts MP – supporting a motion expressing support for Israel and condemning Hamas

Photo of Tim Watts MP
February 7, 2024

We agree with the text of the motion moved by the member for Kennedy, but I should make clear that, were we to have drafted this motion, the motion would have taken a broader lens—and, indeed, we did, when this parliament passed a motion in October last year, almost unanimously.

Mr WATTS (GellibrandAssistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) (16:57): I rise for the second time today to speak on a motion before this chamber on the conflict in the Middle East, and I recommend my earlier speech to all members of the House. It provided a comprehensive accounting of the way that the Albanese Labor government has sought to navigate this consequential and complex conflict.

Let me say that there is much in the member for Kennedy’s speech that I disagree with, but I will take the text of the member’s motion in good faith. We agree with the text of the motion moved by the member for Kennedy, but I should make clear that, were we to have drafted this motion, the motion would have taken a broader lens—and, indeed, we did, when this parliament passed a motion in October last year, almost unanimously. I want to go back to 16 October to reflect on that motion, because I think it set a very solid foundation for the way that we as a government, but also we as a chamber and we as a nation, have sought to respond to the appalling terrorist attacks of 7 October and the conflict that has followed. So let me just read out that 16 October motion. It reflects the motion before the House now. It said:

That the House—

(1) unequivocally condemns the attacks on Israel by Hamas, which are the heinous acts of terrorists, and have encompassed the targeting and murder of civilians, including women and children, the taking of hostages, and indiscriminate rocket fire;

(2) stands with Israel and recognises its inherent right to defend itself;

(3) condemns antisemitism and recognises that generations of Jewish people have been subjected to this hateful prejudice;

(4) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages;

(5) recognises that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, nor their legitimate needs and aspirations …

These provisions of that motion, nearly unanimously passed by this parliament, reflect the provisions of the motion before the House now. But, as I said, we seek to encompass the full pain being experienced in this conflict in this motion. The motion went on:

(6) acknowledges the devastating loss of Israeli and Palestinian life and that innocent civilians on all sides are suffering as a result of the attacks by Hamas and the subsequent conflict—

That’s an important point to note—that the House recognises the suffering of all innocent civilians, all women and children, in this crisis. It went on:

(7) supports justice and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike;

(8) supports international efforts to establish and maintain humanitarian access into Gaza, including safe passage for civilians;

(9) reiterates Australia’s consistent position in all contexts is to call for the protection of civilian lives and the observance of international law; …

The motion goes on, but I should say that the principles of this motion, passed in the immediate wake of the appalling terrorist attack, have held up well. We have consistently argued for them as a government. And the power of that motion, I think, is strengthened by the unity of support for it across the political divide.

It’s important, because Australia is being tested at the moment—the unity of our nation is being tested and our social cohesion is being tested. The kind of nation that I think we all believe we have is being tested. Our ability to treat fellow citizens with respect is being tested in our communities, which is why I was deeply disturbed by the leader of the Greens’ characterisation—

Mr Katter: Why did you let people scream out, ‘Gas the Jews!’?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Claydon ): The member for Kennedy, please!

Mr WATTS: I was deeply concerned, earlier this morning, by the Leader of the Greens’ characterisation of this motion that I have just read out as, ‘When the Labor Party brought a motion to parliament on the eve of a looming invasion to say they backed the invasion, we opposed it.’ What a bad faith characterisation! It’s an unbecoming characterisation of a motion that was explicitly designed to unite the Australian public behind principles that we can all support. Indeed, the final provisions of that motion in October were:

(15) notes that undermining social cohesion and unity by stoking fear and division risks Australia’s domestic security; and

(16) affirms in the strongest possible terms that hateful prejudice has no place in Australia.

It’s appalling to characterise that motion as somehow warmongering. Really? The principles in that motion, passed nearly unanimously by this parliament—with the notable exception of the Greens—have held up and been reflected in subsequent joint statements pursued by the Australian government with like-minded nations around the world trying to deal with this complex and difficult issue.

Indeed, on 13 December 2023, Prime Minister Albanese joined with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada and Prime Minister Luxon of New Zealand in a joint statement by three like-minded prime ministers. It began:

Australia, Canada, and New Zealand mourn every Israeli and Palestinian innocent life which has been lost in this conflict and express our condolences to all families and communities affected by the violence.

Reflecting the motion before the House, it goes on:

We unequivocally condemn Hamas’ terror attacks on Israel on October 7, the appalling loss of life, and the heinous acts of violence perpetrated in those attacks, including sexual violence. We condemn Hamas’ unacceptable treatment of hostages and call for the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining hostages.

The statement also recognised the extraordinary pain and suffering of the humanitarian crisis we see in Gaza, saying:

We remain deeply concerned by the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and ongoing risks to all Palestinian civilians. Safe and unimpeded humanitarian access must be increased and sustained.

Importantly, that statement also set the only pathway out of this current conflict, and that is a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians so that the two peoples can live side-by-side, with internationally recognised borders and in peace and security. It recognised the support by all three prime ministers:

We support Palestinians’ right to self-determination. We oppose the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, the re-occupation of Gaza, any reduction in territory, and any use of siege or blockade. We emphasize that Gaza must no longer be used as a platform for terrorism. We reaffirm that settlements are illegal under international law. Settlements and settler violence are serious obstacles to a negotiated two-state solution.

The reason this is included is that they are obstacles to the negotiated settlement I talked about earlier—the only pathway out of this conflict. It feels like a long way away, but it is the only pathway out.

This statement concludes with a call, in the same way the parliamentary motion concluded, by saying:

We condemn rising antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiment in our countries and around the world and remain firmly committed to combatting prejudice, hatred, and violent extremism.

All of us in this place have an obligation to protect unity and social cohesion. There is no room in our country for antisemitism. There is no room in our country for Islamophobia.

I want to share with the House some recent research from the United Kingdom. It’s in the UK context, but I think we can all benefit from it. More in Common is an NGO that we should all know in this place. It was founded in the wake of the murder of UK member of Parliament Jo Cox by a right-wing extremist, while she was doing what all MPs do—serving her community on the street, talking to constituents. More in Common undertakes regular research aimed at finding ways to tackle increasing fragmentation and polarisation in democratic societies. Its recent research ‘More than taking sides’, on the way that the UK community has responded to the Middle East conflict, offers lessons for us here in Australia.

More in Common’s in-depth research in the UK highlights that the simplistic portrayal of a community divided into sides by the conflict in the Middle East that is often seen on social media belies the overwhelming majority of citizens who have complex feelings about the conflict and are feeling ‘simultaneously angry about the actions of murderous terrorists, concerned for civilians in both Israel and Gaza, and profoundly worried about what the situation means for community relations here in the UK.’ Even worse, the polarisation portrayed on social media isn’t just inaccurate, as More in Common says, it ‘risks deepening division.’ As More in Common states:

Dividing the country into stark binaries cedes discussion to those with the loudest voices and silences the views of the majority of Britons. That in turn risks polarisation on this issue becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy where ordinary Britons feel forced to choose and double down. It also gives licence to a small but vocal fringe of conflict entrepreneurs and extremists to use the conflict as an opportunity to sow discord and hate.

As leaders in this place we need to recognise the complex and conflicting feelings of many Australians on these issues. We need to encourage Australians to engage with each other with empathy, not contempt, to be curious about different perspectives, not judgemental. Such an approach is less likely to get traction on social media platforms, but it’s where the vast majority of the Australian public wants their political leaders to be—to recognise their complex feelings on some of the most difficult issues imaginable and to focus on ensuring our diverse community can grapple with these issues with empathy and respect for each other. That is what we are all charged with as leaders in this place, and that is what I am working for in this nation and in my community.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard