Matthew Doran, Afternoon Briefing, ABC National Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Travel advice for Australians to leave Lebanon, Hamas-Israel conflict, Australia-China relationship.

Matthew Doran, host: Tim Watts, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. How concerning is it to hear from officials from your own department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, that they don’t believe Australians in Lebanon are heeding or listening to the advice from officials to reconsider their need to be in the country?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts: Well, clearly it’s a very serious situation in the region, Matt. We’ve been working very hard through diplomatic channels with partners in the Middle East to try and lower temperatures, to try and avoid what they call a horizontal escalation of this crisis – that is the crisis spilling over into southern Lebanon. But the message that we’ve had from a consular perspective is that the Australians who are in Lebanon at the moment cannot rely on these efforts to succeed. We’ve moved to a do not travel advice on the Smartraveller website for Lebanon in recent days. And what this means is that if you are an Australian in Lebanon now you need to seriously consider the first available commercial option to leave the country now.

We’ve also been asking all Australians in Lebanon now to register with the DFAT crisis portal. You can do that on the Smartraveller website. And the reason for this is we really need to be able to be in contact with Australians in Lebanon as this volatile and serious situation develops. The time to leave is now. Because we do not know what is going to happen over the coming days, over the coming weeks, and the best opportunity to leave may be now.

Doran: You have a large Lebanese community in your electorate. Are you getting any sense from your constituents who may well have family, friends, other loved ones, in Lebanon why there’s a – maybe reluctance is the wrong word, but why people just aren’t listening at the moment?

Assistant Minister: Well, I’m one of a number of MPs that has that really valued Lebanese Australian community in my electorate. And that was part of why in June of this year I visited Lebanon as the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and reviewed our consular contingency planning there. I know from my community that there are around 15,000 long-term Australian residents in Lebanon, and at any one time you could expect there would be thousands more temporary, you know, visitors, tourists, people coming through the country who are Australians. That’s a very large number of people.

Now, the reality is that this diaspora community in Australia has tight connections in country in Lebanon. You know, they have family members, friends, jobs, you know, voluntary organisations that they are working with. So those roots are strong, so in some respects it’s not surprising that people are reluctant to leave. And, as I say, it’s not unique to the Australian Lebanese community; we’re hearing similar things from the Canadian Lebanese community as well. But as a friend of the Australian Lebanese community, my message to my community is really clear: you know, take the advice we are providing now. The ‘do not travel’ advice from Smartraveller is the best advice you can – that you can take. So if it is safe to do so, you really need to be considering the first commercial option out of Lebanon now. We can’t make guarantees about what the situation will be like in the coming days, in the next week.

We’re working very hard on consular contingency planning and we’ve been preparing for moments like this since the experience we received in the 2006 crisis. But the best thing that you can do for yourself, for your family, for your friends is to leave Lebanon if you’re able to as soon as possible.

Doran: What about people who aren’t able to get out if, indeed, they do want to get out? We know that Lebanon is in the midst of a serious crisis at the moment, an economic crisis. Some may simply find that they don’t have the means to take up those commercial options to get out. What’s your message to them?

Assistant Minister: So our message would be if you’re in need of assistance in Lebanon, register with the DFAT crisis portal. You can do that on the Smartraveller website, and we’ll be in touch with you to discuss your situation. Australian consular officials are here to help, but the clear advice that we have is that leaving now may well turn out to be easier than leaving in the future.

One of the things that came out in Senate estimates today in the evidence that DFAT officials were giving before Senate estimates was compared to the 2006 crisis, which was a very significant consular challenge – you know, thousands of Australians were assisted to depart Lebanon at that time – today there are more Australians in Lebanon than at that time. And we believe that there are likely to be more limited options for leaving in a crisis. So now while there are commercial flights operating is likely to be your best, your safest, option.

Doran: Would there be – and I know that governments are generally reluctant to go into much detail about contingency planning and the like – but in the event that there is further tension in this area, that the political situation and the safety situation in Lebanon does start to deteriorate, would we be seeing a situation where the government would be having to evacuate people?

Assistant Minister: Look, it’s difficult to speculate, Matt. We are preparing for a range of contingencies. It’s been reported in the media over the last 24 hours that the ADF has been pre-positioning two aircraft and support personnel to cover a range of these kinds of contingencies. You know, we plan in great detail considering the options available under a range of contingencies for, you know, assisted departures from Lebanon. But the thing that we are absolutely confident of is that now is the easiest time to leave. You know, there are still commercial flights operating, that the conflict has not escalated horizontally in a way that is impeding that. So the safest thing that Australians can do is take the advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from the Smartraveller website and leave now if it is safe to do so.

Doran: The conflict further south from Lebanon is clearly a key concern for many here in Canberra but right around the world. There has been a lot of discussion around the humanitarian crisis which is developing as a result of this, and the government today announcing an extra $15 million in aid for civilians caught up in the conflict in Gaza. It seems as though the government and particularly your senior minister Penny Wong are starting to ramp up the rhetoric when is comes to the protection or the need to protect innocent civilians caught up in this conflict. Is that a reflection from the government that it believes Israel is going far beyond the accepted rules of war here and is acting far beyond simply self-defence to these attacks from Hamas?

Assistant Minister: Well, Matt, we’ve been clear and consistent on this point since the start of this conflict when Hamas committed those appalling terrorist atrocities in Israel. You know, we’ve been clear in saying that Israel has a right of self-defence. We’ve also been clear in saying that it matters how Israel exercises that right of self-defence. And it matters to innocent civilians in Gaza, in Israel, the way that that right of self-defence is exercised. It also matters to Israel’s security itself because we assess and many other countries in the region assess that the best way to avoid the prospects of horizontal escalation of this conflict spreading on a regional basis is for civilian life to be protected and for international humanitarian law to be respected.

We’ve also been very clear that Hamas does not represent the people of Gaza. Hamas is a terrorist organisation that exploits the people of Gaza, that hides behind the people of Gaza, that uses them as human shields and that the people of Gaza shouldn’t have to suffer for the appalling, the heinous terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas.

In that respect there is clearly widespread suffering in Gaza at the moment. We’ve deployed humanitarian resources to assist with that, now $25 million committed to trusted partners since the start of this conflict providing food, water, hygiene, sanitation support to help alleviate that suffering. It’s also been a really key focus of our diplomatic efforts with countries in the region. I’ve been on a number of calls with other countries in the region trying to support those efforts to create sustained, unimpeded safe access for humanitarian support into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing so that we can alleviate that humanitarian suffering that is occurring at the moment.

Doran: It’s not that much of a leap of logic, though, is it, Tim Watts, to say that if the Federal Government is coming out and arguing that Israel needs to be fully aware and adhere to international law here that there is a grave concern that at the moment it is not doing so?

Assistant Minister: Well, Matt, there’s clearly widespread suffering in Gaza at the moment. That’s why we’ve called for a humanitarian pause to ensure that humanitarian support can get to people who desperately need it at the moment. As I say, that food, water, sanitation, hygiene support can get to people that desperately need it at the moment. That’s what we’re working for, not just in humanitarian support but in our diplomatic work in the region. And we’re trying to make sure that there are corridors for that humanitarian assistance to get to the people that desperately need it now. That’s what we’re working on and will continue to work on.

Doran: Very briefly before we let you go, Tim Watts, the Prime Minister has been over in the United States. He’s still in the United States and he was holding a press conference early today Australia time alongside the US President Joe Biden. President Biden seemed to have some advice for Anthony Albanese when it comes to dealing with China saying effectively to look to improve those ties but to be wary at the same time. How do you interpret what Joe Biden was saying there?

Assistant Minister: Well, President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese are clearly close friends. This is the ninth time that they’ve met since Prime Minister Albanese came to government. And this is only the fourth state dinner that a president – President Biden has put on for a foreign leader. So, you know, it’s an indication of the closeness of the relationship.

Look, with respect to President Biden’s comments on the Australia-China relationship, you know, we’ve been very clear in the way that we approach the Australia-China relationship since coming to government – we’ve said that it’s in the interests of both Australia and China to stabilise our relationship and that the best way to do that is to disagree where we must, cooperate where we can and always engage in the national interest. And, you know, when there are differences, and which there are differences between Australia and China on issues like human rights, certain consular issues and on the trade blockages that we’ve experienced, we need to discuss those issues calmly and without the extreme rhetoric.

We’ve done that since coming to government. Discussions have recommenced between our governments at a ministerial level and we’ve achieved significant things. Cheng Lei’s return to Australia was one of the most satisfying moments that I’ve seen in our Foreign Affairs portfolio, but also on the trade front. You know, some $20 billion of trade impediments when we came into government reduced to around $2 billion now and hopefully with more reductions to come. So, you know, we’re very clear in our approach to managing the relationship with China. We think it’s delivering results and stabilising the relationship and we’ll continue on that course.

Doran: Tim Watts, thank you.

Assistant Minister: Pleasure, Matt.

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