TRANSCRIPT: Afternoon Briefing, ABC24 - 24/10/23

24 October 2023


SUBJECTS: Hamas-Israel conflict, Referendum.

MATTHEW DORAN, HOST: Well let’s bring in our Tuesday political panel now. Assistant Health Minister and Labor MP Ged Kearney is in Melbourne. Joining me here in the studio is New South Wales Liberal Senator Maria Kovacic. Thank you to both of you for joining us.

Ged Kearney, I wanted to start with you on this issue about how the debate at home has been playing out with the Israel-Gaza conflict. Clearly, there is a lot of concern in the community as to how our leaders are talking about this issue and whether or not enough attention is being given to innocent civilians on the Palestinian side – while also discussing the right of the Israeli Defence Force to defend its country. What would your message be to that community?

THE HON GED KEARNEY MP, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Well, I think that they can look to the motion that was moved by the Prime Minister in Parliament last week, which I might add had bipartisan support from the Opposition, where we wholeheartedly condemned the actions of Hamas and the awful pain and trauma that was inflicted on the Israeli people and of course the taking of hostages, and have called for those hostages to be released over and over. We certainly defended Israel's rights to protect itself.

But, we balance that, of course, with calling on concern for indiscriminate attacks on civilians in retaliation in Palestine. I think the world has joined us in that message because of the absolute importance, of course, in any conflict, is innocent civilians, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. I think that is very important for us to talk about. Here in Australia, of course, one of the biggest concerns – and I just heard you interviewing people before then just we came on – is social cohesion and harmony here at home. The last thing that we need is politicians, or any commentators for that matter, inflaming unrest here at home by making unmeasured calls for all sorts of things in the Middle East.

I have a wonderful community here in Cooper. I have a very large Muslim community, one of the largest mosques in Melbourne, a small but really caring and wonderful Jewish community as well. They have, from all sides, have come to me and said that really what they want is to be able to live in peace here in Melbourne, in Australia.

I have had Jewish people say that they have, in recent times, been fearful of expressing their faith, of outwardly or showing they are Jewish.

And the same for the Islamic community – the women of course wear hijabs and certain attire the men wear that signal them out as Muslims. That frightens them and that worries me that we are entering into that type of lack of cohesion and fear in our own country.

So, the best thing I think that we can do, as leaders, is aim for social harmony and cohesion, while of course condemning abhorrent acts and asking for protection of civilians.

HOST: Senator, do you agree with that sentiment? Is there a concern here that maybe the community debate here in Australia is also becoming quite heated and that people are fearful for how they are going to be going about their daily lives while watching the horror unfolding overseas?

SENATOR MARIA KOVACIC: I think there are a number of things that we need to be really clear about, and that is Australia is a very strong and very rich multicultural community. There is no place in Australia for anti-Semitism and there is no place in Australia for Islamophobia. It is very important that all communities across the breadth of our country feel safe to practise their own faith and feel free to be who they are. And that includes peaceful protest, but it doesn't include protest that includes hate speech or aggression towards anybody else.

I think we can all attempt to be amateur commentators on the Middle East. My job is to represent the Australian community, to represent New South Wales – and that is for all of the constituents of New South Wales. And to ensure that we provide a safe and harmonious platform and environment for people to be able to express their views and their concerns.

But let's be clear what occurred in Israel on October 7 was a terrorist attack by Hamas.

HOST: I want to pick up on some of the comments that other members of the Coalition made in response to Ed Husic and Anne Aly coming out last week and saying, “will somebody think of the innocent Palestinian civilians that have been caught up here?”

A lot of the criticism that started coming from the Coalition as a result of that was suggesting that they were breaking ranks with the Government, that they were out of step with the broader message coming from the Government, but no criticism of the actual central tenant of what they were arguing, which was that innocent lives on both sides are being caught up in this.

Does that sort commentary from some of your colleagues risk exacerbating the situation that you are speaking about trying to avoid?

KOVACIC: I think the things that are really important here to focus on is that there is consensus across the Government and the Opposition that this was a terrorist attack by Hamas, that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself, but that nobody wants to see civilian loss of life. I think that is abhorrent for everybody. I think what we also need to be very clear about is that any narrative that chooses to divide and create a distortion of peace and the way we are able to live together in our multicultural communities here isn't helpful to communities here or overseas. We need to focus our efforts on ensuring, as was very well put by Ged, that we maintain a good social cohesion here.

HOST: Ged Kearney, on that issue, do you think the Coalition - or some members of the Coalition - I think the Senator here has sort of distanced herself from some of the commentary that was made last week, but do you think some members of the Coalition have been trying to highlight division where division doesn't indeed exist?

KEARNEY: I think the last thing we need here is political point scoring around what is a crisis occurring in the Middle East and potential concerns for people who are living here. I saw that as political point scoring and I don't think there is a place for it.

HOST: Let's move on to the issues around the Voice. We saw a pretty strongly worded statement issued yesterday by some Indigenous leaders, voicing their ongoing anger at the result of the referendum proposal being rejected by the Australian people a week and a half ago now. Given that sentiment does exist -and we're not saying its every Indigenous member of Australian society - but within a very influential part of that community, given that sentiment exists, how difficult is it going to be for the Government to try to come up with some sort of new approach to dealing with things like Closing the Gap and, more broadly, reconciliation? 

KEARNEY: Yes, I think it is important to recognise, of course, that there is great disappointment right across the First Nations community. There are a lot of people in that community who have been working all their lives, certainly, all their adult lives, towards a moment of Constitutional recognition, and the ask of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is understandable that people are disappointed and even angry, but I think you are right in that what we have to focus on now is the way forward, and the best way to do that is to continue to engage with First Nations communities, with their leaders, with grassroots communities as well. Because people might have voted  and we accept the referendum results, and, yes, people might not have voted positively in that referendum, but I don't think anybody would disagree that more needs to be done to Close the Gap. That is a positive, and that is something that we as a Government are absolutely 100% are determined to continue working on. I am sure the Senator would agree that even though that is important it is disappointing.

Referendums are hard to win, as we know, particularly if you don't have bipartisan support. I think that was for me one of the most disappointing things that, despite acknowledging that Constitutional recognition is a good thing, the Opposition couldn't bring themselves to support the referendum. But nevertheless, we will move forward and continue to consult. I think that is a very important thing. Consult with First Nations communities to see what the way forward looks like.

HOST: Senator Kovacic, just on that right of reply?

KOVACIC: There is absolutely a need for reconciliation to continue to post the referendum and I agree, I don't think there is anybody that disagrees that there is a gap that needs to be closed. I think what we need to focus on, and I will be blunt here, in my view the failure of the Voice referendum was a failure of the Prime Minister's leadership. There was no consultation, there was no draft exposure bill, no Constitutional convention. These are referendum 101, how to get a referendum across the line. We had a great Press Club speech from Julian Leeser, we had discussions around dividing it into two questions around a Voice and around executive powers. None of that was given any consideration. It is my view that if we had two question, we would have had a yes vote to one of those questions.

That is something the Prime Minister has to accept as having been his decision. He chose to take it down that path and the Australian public had a democratic process where they chose to reject, not to Close the Gap, but to reject the Prime Minister's Voice proposal.

HOST: I’ll pick you up there. Yes, there were no Constitutional conventions, I’ll concede that point, but on the issue of consultation, wasn't that exactly what the Prime Minister and the Government were doing in taking the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the request that had been made by many Indigenous Australians in signing up to that, and taking that to the Australian people? Wasn't that the consultation?

KOVACIC: If you want a referendum to succeed in this country, it is very clear, historically it has been shown, that you need to have bipartisan support. This was a very important referendum and the Prime Minister decided to proceed without bipartisan support.

HOST: Sticking with you one last question before we let both of you go, Senator Kovacic. Some of the criticism from Indigenous leaders has been squarely focused at the No campaign for misinformation and saying that No voters committed a shameless act on Indigenous people, how do you try to repair that community, noting what you said there about wanting to Close the Gap? Are people that were No voters now going to be tarred with that brush going forward in every interaction they have with certain members of the Indigenous community?

KOVACIC: I have some concerns with that narrative. I am not the only person that has concerns with that. I think Kos Samaras from RedBridge, an ALP figure, came out during the week to say that this was not about misinformation, but this was about no information.  To suggest that some 60% of the Australian voting public has been tricked, I think, is perhaps having a very narrow lens on what has transpired here.

HOST: Much more we could discuss but we are out of time. Maria Kovacic, Ged Kearney, thank you so much for joining us.