Interview with Rafael Epstein, ABC Melbourne

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Hamas-Israel conflict, social cohesion.

Part of this transcript has been redacted in accordance with Digital Transformation Agency guidelines.

Rafael Epstein: Tim Watts joins us. He's the Assistant Foreign Minister, so that means he works with Penny Wong. That, of course, means he's part of Anthony Albanese's Federal Government. Tim Watts is also the MP for the Western Melbourne seat of Gellibrand. Good morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you, Raf.

Rafael Epstein: How significant do you think the division is right now?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think it's deeply concerning, Raf. You know, I heard the Prime Minister's comments on the weekend, and it certainly reflects my experiences, both in the Foreign Affairs portfolio and as a representative of the diverse community in our society.

I mean Australia is a diverse multicultural country, and in the past that's been a really successful thing for our country. But, you know, in recent times we've really been tested. We've really got to find a way to live with each other in this country through this conflict, you know, just to get on with people who disagree with us, you know, to be able to get on in our workplaces, in our schools, in our sporting teams, in our communities. You know, Australian society won't function unless we can find a way to get along with people that disagree with us.

Rafael Epstein: And I'm not asking you to ascribe blame with this question, but is the level of division we've seen since October 7 and the extent of that division, is that new?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think it is new, Raf, and my observation is that the ideologies that some people overlay on to this conflict are preventing people from seeing other people who disagree with them, fellow Australians, as human beings.

People have been using ideologies across the board to justify some pretty appalling behaviour towards people in our community across the board. You know, we're failing to see that people are complex, you know, they have a range of views, they interact with this conflict in a range of ways, and you know, when we apply these grand ideological templates on things, you know, people can sometimes feel justified in failing to see that individual humanity.

I was in the Middle East late last year, the Foreign Minister was in the Middle East at the start of this year, and one of the things that we both observed on those visits is just how depleted that sense of common humanity is, you know.

It sounds twee to say, but it's a genuine roadblock to peace, it's a roadblock to the only pathway out of this conflict, which is a two‑state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in internationally recognised borders and peace and prosperity.

Rafael Epstein: What do you say to the people ‑ I mean I have had conversations actually with people from both sides of this conflict over the weekend. They are furiously angry with your government, not because they feel that you are not siding with them, but they see their cause, either being pro‑Israel or pro‑Palestinian, it's just a simple ‑ it is a simple statement of human rights and a right to dignity. People on both sides of the conflict feel that their views are ‑ they're not controversial, they're not ideological, there is no ideological template, they're just standing up for human rights.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Raf, our government has taken a consistent and principled approach since the start of this conflict, and the reason we've done that, advocating for the release of hostages, for the protection of civilian life, for humanitarian access, and importantly for that pathway out of this conflict in a two‑state solution.

The reason we've taken this consistent and principled approach isn't to please people, isn't to please individual groups, it's because it's the responsible way to approach both the conflict in the Middle East and to keep Australians united at home.

Now regrettably there are some conflict entrepreneurs out there, there are people who are seeking to exploit that conflict for their own ends in our community ‑‑


You know, we had a motion that was supported by almost all parliamentarians --- and that motion went to, you know, the full breadth of this conflict; it went to the horror that all Australians feel about the terrorist atrocities committed on October 7, the sexual violence, the hostage taking. 

It also went to the deep care and concern that all Australians have for the innocent civilians caught up in this conflict, and you know, we shouldn't lose track of the fact that 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza are starving, a million are at risk of starvation.

That was acknowledged in that parliamentary resolution at the start of this conflict, but really importantly that resolution ended with a call for unity. It said there's no place in our society for antisemitism, for Islamophobia; these are fundamental things we have to fight for in this country.

I mean, I love Australia, I'm so proud of the diverse multicultural society we've built, I've been so proud to represent a diverse multicultural community in Melbourne's west for the last 11 years, and those that would seek to divide our community, to undermine that unity, undermine that magnificent society that we have built, are doing a great disservice to our national interest.

Rafael Epstein: I want to thank you for kicking off the conversation. I want to get to calls in a moment. If I can just step away from that topic and just ask you one other question. Barnaby Joyce was filmed by somebody on his back. The clear implication there is that he's affected by some substances, whether or not willingly or unwillingly. He's now talking about getting his medication wrong. Does he need to answer for that? Is that a private matter? Is that a problem?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Oh, look, Raf, I think all politicians understand that we are in the public limelight, that we attract public attention and scrutiny and need to account for our behaviour.

You know, I think a lot of the discourse around this issue is pretty unedifying. I hope that Barnaby's okay and that, you know, he's working through whatever has caused that to happen. But, you know, all politicians need to account for their conduct in the public light.

Rafael Epstein: So, you need a bit more of an explanation from him?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I mean Peter Dutton has asked for an explanation from him, so I'm sure we'll hear more from Peter Dutton about the outcome of that conversation.

Rafael Epstein: Thanks for your time this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, Raf.

Rafael Epstein: Tim Watts is a Labor MP in Melbourne's west, the seat of Gellibrand, he's also the Assistant Foreign Minister. So that obviously means he's part of Anthony Albanese's Federal Government.

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