It is a tradition at the Australia/Israel Review that before any federal election, we offer our readers a non-partisan comparison of the stances and record of the government and opposition on issues we believe are of particular interest to the Australian Jewish community. With Australia going to the polls on August 21, below is our review of the public record of the ALP government, now led by Julia Gillard, and the now Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National coalition, on various selected issues.
Despite the obvious concern that accompanies any change of government – particularly one that had ruled for 11 years – by and large the changeover to the Australian Labor Party saw a continuity of bipartisanship on a raft of Israel and Jewish communal issues.
The sudden change of the prime ministership from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in late-June does not dramatically change this calculus and may even strengthen it, with the latter’s long standing commitment to the Jewish State and the Australian Jewish community not in question.
Indeed, Gillard reaffirmed her support for Israel upon assuming the leadership while repudiating malicious imputations that were made about her judgement and allegedly excessively pro-Israel stance following revelations her partner worked for a Jewish businessman.
When determining the legacy of the Labor Government’s direct record on Israel across the two-and-a-half years of the 42nd Parliament of Australia, there are five standout events that need to be considered.
1. 60th Anniversary
In March 2008, Kevin Rudd introduced into the parliament an unprecedented resolution congratulating Israel on the 60th anniversary of its foundation.
The resolution, which received strong and spirited bipartisan support, called for parliament to, amongst other things:
“(1) celebrate and commend the achievements of the State of Israel in the 60 years since its inception;
(2) remember with pride and honour the important role which Australia played in the establishment of the State of Israel as both a member state of the United Nations and as an influential voice in the introduction of Resolution 181 which facilitated Israel’s statehood [in 1948]…
(3) acknowledge the unique relationship which exists between Australia and Israel, a bond highlighted by our commitment to the rights and liberty of our citizens and encouragement of cultural diversity;
(4) commend the State of Israel’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law and pluralism;
(5) reiterate Australia’s commitment to Israel’s right to exist and our ongoing support to the peaceful establishment of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue…”
2. 2008-09 Gaza War
Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza broke out in December 2008 when Deputy PM Julia Gillard was Acting-PM.
Gillard distinguished herself with a straightforward defence of Israel’s position on Dec. 28, 2008: “Clearly the act of aggression was engaged in by Hamas which commenced shelling with rockets and mortars into Israel. That is what breached the ceasefire, and Israel responded.”
Gillard went to Israel in November 2005 as a participant on an AIJAC/Rambam study group and visited the Israeli town of Sderot which is on the front line of rocket attacks from Gaza, giving depth to her comments during the Gaza war.
It should be noted that while Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister at the time, was out of Canberra during the conflict, both Rudd and Gilliard agree that her statements during the “Cast Lead” conflict were made with his full agreement and support.
3. Leadership Dialogue
In June 2009, Gillard led a delegation of 40-plus Australian MPs, business leaders and policy makers to Israel for the inaugural Australia Israel Leadership Forum organised by the Australia/Israel Cultural Exchange.
Gillard expressed admiration for Israel’s achievements and understanding of the challenges it faces from terrorism and Iran and dwelt on the special bond between Australia and the Jewish state:
“The Australian Jewish community enhances and enlivens Australian life in myriad ways. In science, the arts, law, business, philanthropy and education, their contribution is outstanding and ongoing.
“That is part of what we are here to do. To embrace the opportunity, across all those fields and more, for our two nations to exchange and share perspectives and experiences that may benefit us all.”
4. Passports Affair
The Rudd Government’s relationship with the Australian Jewish community was strained by its response to the news that a number of forged Australian passports had allegedly been used in the targeted assassination of top Hamas terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel.
The Australian Jewish community’s leadership uniformly condemned the misuse of Australian passports, whether by the Israeli Mossad or other organisations, and agreed that the Australian Government had a responsibility to take action to protect the integrity of the Australian passport system.
However, there was concern from Jewish community groups when Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced on May 24 a decision to expel a diplomat from the Israeli Embassy in Canberra after Australian intelligence services determined that Israel was responsible for forging Australian passports. He said the passport forgeries were “not the actions of a friend” and also indicated that there would be a period of cooling of relations with Israel. Jewish groups, including AIJAC, said they considered this overall response an “over-reaction.”
However, Smith reaffirmed Australia’s commitment that “insofar as the Australia-Israel bilateral relationship is concerned, our expectation is that our relationship with Israel can and will continue in a mutually productive and beneficial manner.”
Subsequently, Rudd held a fence-mending working dinner with selected representatives of the Australian Jewish community in early June in an attempt to maintain and improve relations.
5. Gaza Flotilla
Australia’s initially severe response on May 31 to the deaths of nine activists on the Mavi Marmara trying to break Israel’s legal blockade of Gaza came against the backdrop of the fallout of the decision to ask for the withdrawal of a diplomat.
Rudd said on June 1: “The Australian Government condemns any use of violence under the sorts of circumstances that we have seen… When it comes to a blockade against Gaza, preventing the supply of humanitarian aid, such a blockade should be removed.”
Many interpreted Rudd’s comments as indicating that Australia was now calling for a complete cessation of the blockade of Gaza.
This prompted Rudd on June 2 to clarify that meant that the blockade should be eased to allow in to Gaza all humanitarian aid.
Furthermore, adding a contextual backdrop to the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, Rudd noted that “Australia recognises the unique security challenges that the government of Israel faces from the government of Iran, the state of Iran, and the terrorist organisations which the Iranians support.”
One of the most significant policy realignments over the last two-and-a-half years has been the increased emphasis placed upon the United Nations by the Labor government.
This was particularly highlighted by Kevin Rudd’s ambitious plan announced in March 2008 to secure one of the temporary seats on the UN Security Council for 2013–2014.
This caused some concern regarding the effects the desire for a Security Council seat might have on the expression of Rudd’s undoubted support for Israel, given the automatic majority at the UN of anti-democratic states that have consistently proposed one-sided resolutions and commissions of inquiry against Israel.
In November 2008, Labor changed its voting stance to vote in favour of two of the many anti-Israel resolutions that are passed every year by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
The first resolution, on which Australia had previously abstained, asserted the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and Gaza. The resolution ignores legal arguments that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not actually apply; that Israel applies the Convention’s humanitarian provisions voluntarily; and that the resolution lacks any reference to Palestinian violence or violations of international law.
The second resolution, which Australia had previously opposed, condemns all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and accuses settlers of perpetrating violence against Palestinians. This resolution also lacks reference to Palestinian terrorism or violence, and demands Israeli, but not Palestinian, compliance with obligations under the “roadmap for peace.”
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith defended the change in vote for the first resolution as bringing Australia into line with how 160 other countries voted. On the second resolution Smith said it was prompted by Australia’s commitment to the two-state formula.
In April 2009, Australia adopted the principled stance of deciding not to participate in the one-sided anti-Israel UN Durban Review Conference in Geneva.
The Rudd Government also took a strong decision in November 2009 when it voted against the UN accepting the Goldstone Report on the 2008-9 Gaza war.
But that same month, it changed its vote on a third UNGA resolution concerning the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Critics point out this resolution seems to prejudice negotiations over a two-state solution by insisting on the “territorial integrity” of the West Bank and east Jerusalem – contradicting the language of UN Security Council Resolution 242. The resolution also re-affirms the controversial International Court of Justice advisory opinion declaring Israel’s West Bank separation barrier illegal, a decision Australia has always opposed in the past.
In the wake of the passport affair in February 2010, Australia worryingly appeared to modify its previous stance on the Goldstone report and abstained on a UNGA resolution calling on Israel and Hamas to investigate allegations of war crimes during the Gaza conflict based on the report.
The government denied any link between the vote change and the passports affair.
What importance a re-elected Gillard Government might place on the UN and the quest for a Security Council seat is unclear, especially in the wake of the opposition announcement dropping this effort.
Prior to the election of the Rudd Government in March 2007, then shadow foreign affairs spokesperson Robert Mclelland proposed that a Labor government would consider leading a campaign to have Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicted at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for threatening genocide against Israel.
Once Labor won power, the idea was considered but not pursued for the same reason it was criticised when originally announced – only countries, not individuals, can be prosecuted by the ICJ, except through Security Council referral, and this proved difficult to achieve.
On issues of substance, the government has been in lockstep with the major Western powers on the sanctions regime in place against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
On more than one occasion the government has used its power to block exports of dual-purpose items to Iran.
In June 2010, upon the passage by the UN Security Council of new Iran-related sanctions, the government introduced the Autonomous Sanctions Bill in the federal parliament that goes further than the important but limited UN sanctions regime.
LOCAL SECURITY & JEWISH SCHOOLS’ FUNDING
The Government’s commitment to the independent schools system, and particularly the integrity of the Jewish day schools, was given substance shortly after its election in 2007 when it honoured a pre-election promise to resolve long-standing anomalous funding shortfalls for four Orthodox Jewish day schools, which had been unfairly disadvantaged under the existing arrangements.
The Government also addressed the issue of providing funding of security for Jewish day schools, which have long laboured to provide quality and affordable education against a backdrop of ongoing threats.
On April 15, 2010, as Education Minister, Julia Gillard announced a review of school funding arrangements for government and non-government schools from 2013. Businessman David Gonski was appointed to head the inquiry which will release its report in 2011. The government promised no school would face any absolute funding cuts per student but did not guarantee to maintain funding in real terms.
Multiculturalism remains a feature of ALP policy, but does not seem to have been a major focus of the ALP government over the past three years.
In December 2008 the government announced the formation of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council.
The new council was to advise on matters relating to social cohesion and released its first report on cultural diversity called The People of Australia, in April 2010.
On June 22, 2010 the government reappointed the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council for a second term that will carry through to 2012.
Labor has largely continued the previous government’s efforts to counter Islamist terrorism locally and overseas.
However, in July 2009 Attorney General Robert McClelland announced a study to “examine the use of language by Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments’ in relation to terrorism”.
McClelland said: “We need to use language that does not inadvertently glorify terrorism but rather describes it in terms of base criminal behaviour of the most reprehensible kind. We should also be conscious of not alienating broad ethnic and religious groups by labelling them in a way that causes prejudice.” The outcome of this inquiry is still pending.
On February 22, 2010, the government’s long awaited counter-terrorism White Paper was released to a largely welcoming but muted response. The White Paper offered relatively few new initiatives, but was forthright and direct in defining the roots of the major terrorist threat, as an “international movement” of “people who follow a distorted and militant interpretation of Islam that calls for violence as the answer to perceived grievance.”
Relevant government ministers have proven receptive to finding ways to deal with the potential terrorist and racial incitement problem stemming from the al-Manar satellite television station, run by Hezbollah. Al-Manar is presently being beamed into parts of Australia via Indosat, an Indonesian satellite television service, and was the subject of a 2009 Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) inquiry.
During the nine-day period that ACMA monitored al-Manar, senior Hezbollah figures promoted jihad and martyrdom and footage of Hezbollah militia undertaking military operations were held up as examples to emulate. Yet ACMA found no breach of their anti-terrorism standards which require evidence of programming directly recruiting or soliciting funds for the benefit of a listed terrorist group.
ACMA is now undertaking a second more wide-ranging examination of al-Manar, whose results are expected shortly. Regardless of the outcome, senior government ministers have made it clear they will seriously consider whatever measures appear necessary to prevent broadcasting by terrorist organisations within Australia, with a spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy telling the Australian on Feb. 8 that “The government finds all forms of racial vilification unacceptable… The Australian government’s position on this issue is clear: we do not tolerate activities that support terrorism or terrorist organisations.”
AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ
The Rudd Government fulfilled its 2007 commitment to withdraw all of Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq in June 2008. However, it left in place personnel to protect the Australian embassy in Baghdad.
On Afghanistan, the government under Rudd and now Gillard has offered an ongoing commitment to defeat the Taliban and stabilise the country. Currently 1,550 troops are stationed there.
Speaking at the Victorian Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce function on day three of the 2010 election campaign, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was unequivocal in his support of Israel. Mr. Abbott said the Coalition’s support for Israel was “unshakeable”, cautioning that “Australians should appreciate that a diminished Israel diminishes the West; it diminishes us.” Rather than constituting an isolated remark, it is more a reflection of the Coalition’s continued strong support for Israel under successive leaders Brendan Nelson, Malcom Turnbull and now Abbott. From his first public address as Opposition Leader at the 2009 Australia Israel Leadership Forum, Tony Abbott stated “I’d like to think that nowhere in the world [does Israel] have more stauncher friends than us.”
The following eight policy responses provide a snapshot of the Coalition’s conduct in opposition, and hint at the alternate government’s likely policy configurations for 2010 and beyond.
UN/ Durban II Conference
Quite early in the debate, the Coalition called upon the Government to withdraw involvement from the UN anti-racism Durban Review conference in Geneva in April 2009, along with many of Australia’s key allies.
Julie Bishop, the shadow minister of foreign affairs, stated “the original 2001 Durban conference was marred by its anti-Israel bias and rampant anti-Semitism,” making the further observation that “the preparatory work for the Durban Review conference gives every indication that this will be even worse.”
It is likely that, if elected, the Coalition would be more reserved than the current government in its support for multilateral organisations like the UN.
The Coalition indicated on July 20 that, if elected it will withdraw Australia’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-14. Senior Coalition ministers have previously argued that Australia’s foreign policy is in danger of being distorted as a result of the bid, pointing to changes in voting on anti-Israel resolutions in the UN General Assembly. The Coalition has argued that the changed votes are evidence of Australia currying favour with Arab states to secure crucial votes.
The Coalition has been a strong advocate of the UN Security Council imposing additional sanctions against Iran, in conjunction with the international community, and has supported the recent government efforts to impose additional Iran sanctions.
Julie Bishop, the foreign affairs spokesperson, recently noted that Iran has ignored UN Security Council resolutions that it freeze its enrichment program, and seems impervious to the increasingly stringent UN-imposed sanctions regime.
Ms. Bishop also criticised the Iranian regime for “providing support to extremist organisations including Hezbollah, Hamas and various al-Qaeda franchises,” with “Iran’s leadership regularly threatening to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”
The Coalition was resolute in advocating Israel’s right to defend itself during Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008. The Opposition attributed clear blame to Hamas’ rocket attacks for the Israeli incursions and the end of the six month ceasefire.
The then-Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, welcomed the provisions of the UN Security Council’s ceasefire Resolution 1860 that explicitly condemned terrorist attacks against civilians and demanded that member states act to stop Hamas’ smuggling of arms into Gaza, calling both “necessary pre-conditions for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.”
As Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott criticised the Rudd Government’s decision to expel an Israeli diplomat over allegations that Mossad used forged Australian passports in the assassination of Hamas terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel.
Mr. Abbott stated “We can never forget that Israel is a country under existential threat in a way Australians find difficult to understand…We have to understand that Israel sometimes has to do something which mercifully other countries are spared the necessity of doing. It strikes me that it would be an overreaction to expel an Israeli diplomat.”
Similar calls for restraint were aired by Julie Bishop on ABC News Radio and Sky News.
The May 31 incident, where a Gaza-bound flotilla attempting to break Israel’s legal blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza ended in a violent confrontation and the deaths of nine activists, was met with a call for moderation by senior Coalition ministers. Julie Bishop sought to contextualise the incident with a view to the broader geo-political reality, and Turkey’s changing relationship vis-a-vis Israel.
Senator Scott Ryan and other Liberal leaders noted activists on the Mavi Marmara “were not peace activists; they were agents of provocation, radicals seeking a violent confrontation as they broke the legal maritime blockade of Gaza.”
Multiculturalism & Australian Jewry
In his 2010 address to the Victorian Australia Day Council, the Opposition Leader lauded the achievements of the Jewish community, “Australia happens to be the only country in the world (apart from Israel) where Jews have held the positions of army commander, chief justice and head of state.”
On the independent schools issue, Shadow Education Spokesperson Christopher Pyne has expressed criticism about the government’s Gonski Review into government and independent school funding, based on the ALP’s past objections to the funding model.
“We know (Gillard) doesn’t support it. Non-government schools should be very wary of where the government intends to take their funding formula,” Pyne said. Pyne guaranteed a Coalition government would not weaken the SES funding model or current support for non-government and government schools.
On Multiculturalism, some factions of the Liberals and Nationals have traditionally been opposed to or sceptical of Australian Multiculturalism, but after some initial reservations, the Howard Government eventually adopted a balanced and effective policy of Australian Multiculturalism, stressing responsibilities as well as rights. Current leader Tony Abbot penned a strong defence of multiculturalism in Quadrant magazine in 2006, and he re-affirmed a commitment to multiculturalism in a speech in January of this year.
The Coalition holds a strong stance on counter-terrorism efforts against homegrown Islamic threats as well as terrorist threats emanating from abroad. In August 2009, the Coalition endorsed the decision of the Joint Committee in Intelligence and Security and the Attorney-General’s department in relation to the listing of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation.
Nick Minchin, the then shadow minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, expressed the coalition’s disappointment at the outcome of the 2009 ACMA investigation of Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV Station.
Senator Minchin called for a review of ACMA’s anti-terrorism standards to prevent the broadcast of terrorist material into Australia.
The Coalition calls for Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan to be maintained, with the possibility of increasing that commitment, if there is a gap in the current force capacity in Oruzgan province.
Tony Abbott did not entirely rule out the possibility of Australian forces taking over management of Oruzgan province – provided there was a request to do so from the US, and provided that any additional forces were part of a sound strategic plan. Abbott stated in April 2010, “Australia should be prepared to shoulder its responsibilities and I don’t believe that we should leave our allies in the lurch in Afghanistan.” The Coalition has not provided specific information on the level of additional resources required for an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan.