Subjects: The barbaric attacks on Israel and the ramifications around Australia; the Prime Minister’s lack of leadership; Prime Minister Netanyahu; China; AUKUS; Labor’s cost of living crisis.
Let’s bring in the Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton.
Peter Dutton, thanks very much for your time.
What’s your reaction to the intervention by Tony Burke? Would many of his constituents agree with him?
Well, Kieran, I think it gives a real insight into the thinking within the Labor Party and the division that exists. I think the Prime Minister should have picked the phone up immediately to Tony Burke and really given him a dressing down because to not condemn Hamas and to use this sort of soft form of words sends a terrible message and the Government should be speaking with one voice of condemnation against Hamas at the moment, and instead you’ve got people running off doing their own thing.
Tony Burke, to his great shame, is playing to his constituency within his own electorate when he should be acting in the national interest. He’s just going after his own local political opportunity and putting our national interest at a second. He’s part of the leadership group of the Government, he’s the Leader of the House in the House of Representatives, and he should have, I thought, had a response which was more consistent with where I think the majority of the Australian people are.
His local council, the Canterbury-Bankstown Council, has voted to raise the Palestinian flag. He said he supports the decision completely, Tony Burke. Given the loss of life in the Middle East, a catastrophe by anyone’s estimation, and the large number of Muslim Australians in his seat, is it reasonable that he represents their concerns, the concerns of his constituents in this fashion?
Well Kieran, nobody wants to see a loss of life in the Middle East or anywhere else. Nobody will tolerate discrimination against any Australian, regardless of their religious faith or their background or heritage. That’s not part of our culture and it should be called out where it departs from that.
The scenes that we saw at the Sydney Opera House, where people were cheering the slaughter of Israelis by Hamas terrorists – they’re scenes that don’t belong in our country otherwise. It’s not something that you want as the image of this country beamed around the world, and I think the division within the Government now is sending exactly the wrong message.
We shouldn’t forget that on the 7th of October, people were slaughtered. Young people were driven from a music concert into the desert and machine gunned-down. People were decapitated. These were the acts of depraved individuals, and Hamas is a listed terrorist organisation in this country, and they’re instructing Palestinians not to move out of the way, knowing that Israeli tanks are rolling in to respond to the terrorist attacks that took place on the 7th of October. There are still 200 Israelis somewhere in a tunnel, if they’re still alive, and the thought that we can dismiss all of that or pretend that the Israelis aren’t responding to this attack on their own soil, is something that we should call out.
The Prime Minister needs to show leadership here. The conduct of the Government from the very first day demonstrated that the Prime Minister’s instincts were all wrong. We’ve got a big Jewish community here in our country, many of whom are living in fear at the moment, worried about sending their kids to school in a Jewish school uniform, people chanting for ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘F the Jews’, and that sort of conduct, which is completely and utterly deplorable. That’s why the Prime Minister needs to rein people in like Tony Burke instead of allowing him to play to his local constituency ahead of the national interest.
The second phase of the Israel war has begun, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, in its attempt to wipe out the terrorist group Hamas for those atrocities that you rightly pointed out from October 7, which was not just war crimes, but a terrorist attack on Israel. But it’s a diabolical scenario, isn’t it? Where you’ve got Israel trying to wipe out that terrorist group, but Hamas uses civilian infrastructure to shield its assets. How does Israel win the military war and the moral one?
But, Kieran, this is what terrorist groups have done in many, even recent examples, let alone if we go back through history, it’s exactly what Al Qaeda does. The treatment of women, of young girls, the use of suicide bombers and the sacrifice of life. Human life means nothing to them, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing from Hamas. They have all the same traits as Al Qaeda, as Osama bin Laden and other people as we go back through history.
It’s difficult, because, as we know, Hamas, and others within the region, want to – and they’re very open about it – they want to drive the Jewish people into the sea. They don’t believe that people should exist, and Hamas, given an opportunity, would wipe out, would slaughter, every Jewish person to the last child standing – and that’s what they’re dealing with. So, should there be a reaction to a terrorist attack and the fact that a couple of hundred people are still being held hostage? Of course there should be. And the Australian public would demand exactly that from our Australian Government if Australian citizens were in the same scenario.
So, there’s an existential threat. People have a right to exist. Israel is a democracy, they’re a functioning society, and we need to find peace in that part of the world where it’s not been possible for a very long time.
So, it is difficult because, as you say, when you look at the footage of buildings being knocked to the ground, all of that infrastructure being lost, but the fact is that Hamas has tunnel entries going up through mosques or up through hospitals or through neighbourhood buildings. They have snipers off the top of those buildings. That is the reality of what the Israelis are having to deal with, but it’s all started in this current salvo because those Hamas terrorists crossed the border and they’ve taken 40 babies and 160 other Israelis, hold them captive to this day, and the concentration, frankly, of Tony Burke and others should be on the release of those hostages. That would be the best chance of taking a positive step in an otherwise dreadful circumstance.
The United Nations General Assembly voted over the weekend for an immediate humanitarian truce: 120 nations voting in favour, 14 against including the US and Israel. Australia, along with the United Kingdom, abstained. Does that diminish the Government’s support, its stated support, for Israel and its right to defend itself?
Of course it does. We should have been standing with our long-standing allies, including the United States, in support of Israel. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn’t yet taken a phone call from Anthony Albanese three weeks post the 7th of October is a very significant moment for us to contemplate. There have been world leaders who have stood by the Israelis, they’ve gone to Tel Aviv, they’ve been very vocal in their support following the terrorist attacks.
Our Prime Minister hesitated, didn’t put a call in initially, has refused to go to Tel Aviv to provide that moral support and a statement that civilised countries and allies will stand with Israel against the barbarity of terrorist attacks, the slaughter of children and women, the abduction of elderly ladies. The Prime Minister had an opportunity here in the United Nations to send a clear message about our values and where we stand, and he failed that test.
I think it was an incredibly weak display of leadership from the Prime Minister. He should have been standing with President Biden. He makes a lot of the relationship, as we just saw in the interview then. America’s our most important ally, particularly in an uncertain time, and to see the Prime Minister parading around on the red carpet, but then squibbing it when it comes to the tough decisions – I don’t think that’s in our country’s best interests.
Can Australia achieve the two things that the Government is trying to do though, now, that is condemn Hamas and back Israel, but also argue for the protection of civilian life?
Well, Hamas is making it very difficult when they’re telling civilians to stay in situ and not to move and not to take opportunity to exit Gaza. They’re being used as human shields. That’s what Hamas is doing and that’s what terrorist groups do. They use the propaganda of innocent people being the victims of war, and the difficulty for Israel is that Hamas wants to wipe them off the map, and that’s the problem for a lot of Australians.
It upsets me greatly that you hear people talking about or invoking the atrocities of Hitler where 6 million Jews were gassed. This is the biggest attack on Israel, the biggest loss of life since that time, and this is something that can’t be ignored. So, we need to provide a solution, but that can’t be done when you’ve got a terrorist organisation – recognised in Australia as such – going around beheading people and trying to conduct these attacks on Israeli soil, that’s just not something you can contemplate.
The PM didn’t go to the Middle East – as you suggested he should – as part of that visit to the United States, to have a detour and head to the Middle East. Would you consider going to Israel as a show of support in your capacity as Opposition Leader?
Well Kieran, I’ve certainly given it consideration. My judgement is that that’s not the best use of my time. I think, for Opposition Leaders to go to Israel, to expect a meeting with the Prime Minister, is not something that is the best approach. The leader of our country, the Prime Minister, is the person with the authority who needs to go there and send a very clear statement that we reject the attacks of Hamas, that we stand with Israel, we support the people of Israel, and that would be a very strong message that he could send. But the fact that he failed to even call the Prime Minister of Israel and now hasn’t even had a call to this day – and I hope that it’s possible within the next day or two or whenever it might be – but it’s a very clear message when Prime Minister Netanyahu has met with and telephoned or taken calls from many of the world leaders who share our values and that Australia is left out of that, that is not something our country should be proud of and the Prime Minister should apologise for that.
It’s the same illogical approach that the Prime Minister had when he didn’t call a National Security Committee, where in the opening days they should have been pre-positioning assets in Al Minhad to evacuate Australian citizens. They should have been contemplating what DFAT needed to do to protect our equities in the region, to understand what was going to happen if there was a spillover through the northern border with Australian citizens who are in Lebanon. None of that was contemplated.
Instead, the Prime Minister was obsessed on the Voice and didn’t have the ability to deal with those two issues.
I think most Australians were jarred by that, and I think the Jewish community here in Australia was totally shocked by it. The Prime Minister, I don’t think, has found his stride since then, and it’s evidenced by the lack of leadership in the UN vote, and it’s also evidenced by allowing people like Tony Burke to free range on an issue that’s very important here in Australia.
On some other matters, do you welcome the fact that Anthony Albanese will become the first Prime Minister in more than seven years to visit Beijing later this week?
Well, we’re very happy for the visit to take place, but there are some tough messages, obviously, that the Prime Minister will have to deliver, and I think President Biden’s been clear about that as well.
The Prime Minister describes this period as the most precarious and dangerous since the Second World War, and I agree with his assessment. It’s based on credible intelligence and it’s the intelligence I received as Defence Minister, and no doubt the situation has only compounded for the worse since then.
So, we need to be realistic about where we are. We have a very strong trading relationship with China, I want to see that grow. We have an incredible diaspora of people of Chinese heritage here in Australia and we should be very proud, as we are, of their contribution to our country.
At the same time, though, the Prime Minister needs to address the issues, for example, that Mike Burgess, the head of ASIO, called out when he was in Washington only in the last fortnight, that there is an industrial scale attempt to steal intellectual property and cyber attacks on our system, etc. We have to be realistic about the situation and the relationship – there are multifaceted aspects to it that will need to be addressed.
We wish the Prime Minister well in his visit, but he needs to deliver some tough messages.
Can I get your reaction to the death of the former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang? He’s seen as one of the last liberal reformers in the Chinese leadership. He was clearly frozen out at the end of his time in office by President Xi. Your reflections on Premier Li Keqiang?
Well, obviously, there’s a difficult time for his family, first and foremost, and I think we should acknowledge that. There’s a human aspect to all these situations, obviously.
Look, as most analysts will point out, China is under a different direction with President Xi. That’s the reality, and we want peace to continue in our region, we want there to be a status quo arrangement in relation to Taiwan, we want a very strong trading relationship with China, but we have equities and values that are important and our sovereignty is sacrosanct to us. So, we should be working with allies, we should be calling out bad behaviour where we see it.
Obviously the passing of the Premier is a sad occurrence. There are other situations – the Defence Minister obviously has now been removed from office, other officials as well who have been moved on from their positions. There are human rights issues that the Prime Minister no doubt will raise when he’s in China as well. I just think we need to be sober and realistic about what is a very uncertain period, not just in Europe, now in the Middle East and the South China Sea is a very difficult mix, as we’ve see with the Filipinos and with the Japanese and others.
It’s not Australia who has changed her values, here. We need to stand up for the values that we’ve fought for over a long period of time, and we don’t sacrifice those under any circumstance. We want to see the trading relationship increase, as I say, but we need to be very frank in the relationship as well.
On to the AUKUS developments in the United States. We know China featured prominently during Joe Biden’s comments. This could potentially fall over at its first hurdle in Congress, but more broadly with former President Trump now the favourite to be the Republican nominee, he could win next year. I know the Prime Minister was saying that the alliance is in the best state it’s been, but if that happens next year, are we facing a more precarious alliance than our leadership is being upfront about?
Kieran, I think what’s been demonstrated over a long period of time is – regardless of whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican administration, whether it’s Liberal or Labor on our side of the relationship – it’s endured. When you go back to the Battle of the Coral Sea, you look at the 100 years of mateship where we fought alongside the United States in conflicts which ultimately have been in our country’s best interests. We’re a population of 25.8 million people, and sometimes we think we’re bigger and we have a huge capacity and respect around the world, but we need to keep the company of like-mindeds, which is why it’s important to have the relationship enduring with the United States, with the United Kingdom, with Canada, with our dear friends and family in our neighbourhood as well, including New Zealand and Pacific Island nations.
We are a better country when we stand up for our values and when we respect our history so that we’re not compromised into the future and we have an opportunity to really bolster our strength. We know that there are many people in the region who don’t respect weakness, and the nuclear submarine package is one part of the AUKUS deal, but there’s a lot that we’re doing in the area of space, in the area of AI, in defence materiel acquisition otherwise, research and development. That was all part of the deal that we did with the United States and the United Kingdom under the AUKUS compact when we were in government.
Now, what the Americans need to hear is that there remains absolute bipartisanship in relation to getting AUKUS done. I think there is some concern on the American side that everything’s been pushed to the right, that acquisitions have been delayed, the Government’s just conducting review after review, they’ve ripped a billion-and-a-half dollars out of Defence, and at a time when we need to acquire that capability quickly, the Government’s delaying, and I want the Americans to hear that there remains bipartisan support.
What we should be doing as the third partner in this deal is bolstering the overall capability because there are capacity constraints within the United States and within the United Kingdom as well. So, the three of us together, coming together with our industrial bases, should allow us to increase the overall productivity and output from the three countries at a time when we need it most. That’s when Australia will contribute fairly and we can acquire more quickly the submarines that we need because no country’s investing in electric submarines, no country’s investing into diesel submarines. Everybody is investing into the nuclear propulsion system, which is why it’s an important part of our energy debate here domestically as well.
We’re almost out of time. Just one final one on the issue of cost of living. Melbourne Cup Day looming, and unfortunately for many mortgage holders, it looks like rates are likely to go up again. You’ve been saying the Prime Minister’s been distracted from his main job in trying to ease those difficulties for a lot of Australians right now. There’s been a number of ideas raised like cutting the fuel excise or at least pausing it for a period. What’s your read on that? Would that make sense? Have you got any other tangible things the Government should do on that front?
Well, Kieran, when we were in government, we managed the economy such that in 96 meetings of the Reserve Bank, they raised interest rates on one occasion. The Reserve Bank’s met 16 times since Labor’s been in power and they’ve put up interest rates on 11 occasions – as you say, sadly, perhaps on a 12th occasion on (Cup Day) Tuesday. They’ve kept interest rates flat on five of those decisions.
So, the Government’s had two budgets where they’ve had the ability to make decisions which would ease the pressure on inflation and therefore bring interest rates back. They haven’t done that. In fact, they’ve added to the inflationary pressures. That’s why food is up by 8.2 per cent, why gas is up by 28 per cent, while electricity is up by 18 per cent – and it’s just the start of it. Your electricity bill’s going to continue to go up under this ‘renewables only’ policy of Chris Bowen. There are a lot of families who just can’t afford an increase again by another 25 points or whatever it might be, or even interest rates where they are now, when every other cost of living pressure is there for their families.
So, the Prime Minister has been distracted for the last 18 months, but not just him. Richard Marles, as we point out before, he has been distracted and not been doing his day job as Defence Minister. You’ve seen the same with Jim Chalmers as well, and the decisions that they have made I think have resulted in upward pressure on inflation.
So, Australians are feeling that at the moment. They understand exactly what’s happened over the last 18 months. They feel a great frustration because the Prime Minister has been hanging out on the red carpet and travelling the world and dealing with elites and the union bosses and the industry super bosses. We’ve been out talking to Australians in cafes, in suburbs, and towns. There is a lot of pain out there that I don’t think the Prime Minister understands and he needs to get cracking to provide some support.
Now, there can be temporary relief through a reduction of excise if they believe that that’s going to be of benefit. It’s costly, and it can be gained by the oil giants, but there are periods where it is effective and I think you need to make a point-in-time decision about whether that’s the best economic response. But we introduced stage one and stage two tax cuts which provided support to families. Stage three come in at the beginning of this coming financial year. There’s a lot of support there for families by reducing the tax that they’re paying, but as we know under this Government, workers are paying 15 per cent more tax than they did when we were in government.
So, I think the Government’s created an almighty mess here and the Australian public’s paying the price for that.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Thanks for joining us this Sunday morning. Appreciate it.
Thanks, Kieran. Thank you.