Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s support of Ukraine, Israel-Palestine two-state solution, return of MPs to Canberra.

Tom Connell: Joining me now is Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts. Thanks for your time. We've ran through the list there of times Ukraine sought assistance and is seemingly not getting it. Has it gone a bit back of mind for Australia? Are we not as committed as we used to?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, I'm proud to say that Australia has been one of the most significant non-NATO contributors to Ukraine. We want to see the conflict between Ukraine and Russia ended on the terms of the Ukrainian Government and we provided very significant both military and humanitarian support to that cause, in fact, $910 million worth of support. As the Prime Minister said earlier, we continue to consider requests for support from the Ukrainian, but our government remains resolute with the Ukrainian Government and their people in that fight against the illegal and immoral invasion by the Russian government.

Tom Connell: So, is there any indication, though, on this latest request because Ukraine says this is urgent and we're sort of getting very vague responses from the Prime Minister. What's really going on here?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, we consider these things in the way that we consider all matters in this government with due process, regard for the advice from our security advisors. So, we're working that through as the Prime Minister indicated today and we'll respond in due course.

Tom Connell: Want to turn to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister has responded to Joe Biden's latest call on hoping for peace in the region. Benjamin Netanyahu says Palestinian sovereignty is not compatible with Israel's security needs. Is the two-state solution effectively dead?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, these are deeply disappointing comments. The Australian Government supports the aspirations of the Palestinian people for self-determination and ultimately for a state of their own. We need to appreciate that the only way to resolve this conflict is through a negotiated settlement where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in security and prosperity within internationally agreed borders.

Now, the only way we're going to get there is through a negotiated settlement. Security responses alone will not resolve this conflict. So, our position as the Australian Government, we've been very clear, along with many other countries around the world in saying to the government of Israel and to the leadership in Palestine that they need to get back on track for that. It might seem difficult at the moment, it might seem a long way away, but it is the only way forward.

So, we've called out comments, frankly, like these recent comments from Mr. Netanyahu, that undermine these prospects for a long-term negotiated settlement to this ongoing dispute. We've also called out other obstacles to peace like illegal settlement activity in the West Bank. And we've made it clear that in a post-conflict world there can't be any reduction in the size of the territory of Gaza and there can't be any permanent Israeli presence within Gaza. We call these things out because they are obstacles to that permanent, ongoing, just and enduring resolution of this conflict that we so desperately need now.

Tom Connell: When you say presence, the other thing indicated by the Israeli PM is Israel being in charge of security in terms of Gaza. Even if that's not within Gaza, is that something else you'd find unacceptable?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've been very clear on this, as has the United States Government, that there can't be an ongoing presence from Israel in Gaza post-conflict. The status quo before October 7 was serving no one. We need to get to an enduring settlement between the parties where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and prosperity. The only way we'll get there is through a negotiated settlement. That's why recent trips to the Middle East by myself and by the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong - this is the message that we were delivering to partners and to governments of influence in that region, to impress upon both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership. Australia is not a decisive voice in this. We're a respected voice and we use our voice to advocate for that long-term solution to this conflict.

Tom Connell: The Australian Government has said from the outset that Israel has a right to defend itself, but it also mattered how that was carried out, if you like. It needed to be proportionate. Has Israel gone beyond what is proportionate, in your view?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, you're right to say, Tom, we've been clear and consistent since the outbreak of this conflict in saying that Israel has a right to defend itself against the appalling terrorist attacks committed by Hamas on October 7, the appalling sexual violence, the appalling murders, the appalling kidnapping and hostages that are still held in Gaza more than 100 days after those terrible attacks. We've also said that the way Israel exercises this right of self-defence matters, and that while Hamas has flagrantly trashed international law, international humanitarian law, Israel as a democracy is held to a higher standard as all democracies bring onto themselves. So, we've made it clear that principles of international law, like proportionality, distinction, precaution, must be upheld by Israel. And we've called on them to live up to their commitment, to live up to and uphold international law. We've seen a harrowing loss of innocent civilian life in Gaza during this conflict, and it needs to stop.

Tom Connell: What does that actually mean, though? That it's gone beyond what's proportionate, in your view, and why?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we supported a resolution in the United Nations for a humanitarian ceasefire to preserve civilian life in Gaza. And we think that's an important step towards an enduring ceasefire. That can't be one-sided. You know, we've said very clearly that Hamas needs to return hostages, that there needs to be a cessation of rocket fire from Hamas to Israel, that these are essential requirements for any enduring ceasefire between the parties.

Tom Connell: Just want to get you quickly as well. You'll be here in Canberra soon. Half your luck, nice time of the year in Canberra. But why is this a good use of taxpayer money for Labor MPs to be flying here? You'll be here in a couple of weeks anyway. What's going to be sorted out at this special meeting of caucus that couldn't have been done in a couple of weeks?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Tom, I know that the news cycles can sometimes be slow over the summer break and that desperate Oppositions can get up pretty weak yarns at this time of the year, but really, members of the government turning up for work is now a news story. I mean, most Australians are back at work. I'm sure they expect their representatives to be.

Tom Connell: But there's no parliament on.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: This caucus meeting enables Members of Parliament within the government to come to Canberra to represent their communities, to argue for the cost-of-living relief that we know we need and to argue for the continuation of the targeted, responsible cost of living relief that doesn't further fuel inflation. I'm looking forward to going to Canberra. I know that the whole ministry is already up in Canberra for cabinet meetings. Many MPs are already up there. So, really, by politicians turning up to work to identify solutions for the Australian public, for the cost-of-living crisis, it shouldn't be a news story. This is reflective and frankly, of Peter Dutton's obsession with fights over fixes. He's not interested in fixes, in solutions to deal with the problems facing the Australian people. All he wants is a fight. I'm keen to get to Canberra to work with members of the government, to work with the Prime Minister, to deliver more of that targeted cost of living relief that Australians want their politicians and their elected representatives to deliver.

Tom Connell: Sounds like all big announcements coming. We'll look forward to them on Thursday. Tim Watts. Thank you.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks.

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