The Albanese government is coming under more heat as it tries to navigate its position on Gaza conflict, writes MICHELLE GRATTAN.
FOR an issue in which Australia is not a player and has no direct influence, the Israel-Hamas conflict is putting serious strain on the Albanese government, internally and externally.
Its decision this week to vote for the UN resolution that “demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” may ease the pressure from some of Labor’s internal pro-Palestinian advocates. But it has sharpened the external criticism from the pro-Israel lobby, including prompting some sharp words from the Israeli ambassador.
Among Labor’s rank and file, Palestine has long been a trigger point. Years ago, Anthony Albanese was co-founder of the parliamentary friends of Palestine. Members of Albanese’s own branch in his inner Sydney electorate of Grayndler recently accused Israel of “acts of retribution on an innocent Palestinian population”.
From the start of the current conflict, the government, in its condemnation of the Hamas attack and its support for Israel’s right to defend itself, emphasised the need for “restraint”. That brought it some (unreasonable) criticism from the opposition. As it has sought to minimise the community tensions within Australia, it has been careful to warn against Islamophobia when condemning rising antisemitism.
Watching this war in constant real time, the world has been witnessing terrible images from Gaza. The extent of civilian deaths and suffering has eroded some of the initial support Israel had in the international community after Hamas’ appalling October 7 attack.
The Australian government has become increasingly explicit in its concern about the human cost of the conflict, culminating in this week’s UN vote. Only in October Australia abstained on an earlier resolution (which was looser and didn’t make specific reference to the hostages).
But the government this week also muddied its position by suggesting it hasn’t actually changed. It pointed to a statement, issued shortly before the vote, by Albanese and the Canadian and NZ prime ministers. This was driven by Australia, and Albanese had been working on it for weeks. The statement was more even-handed than the UN resolution. In particular, it condemned Hamas, which the resolution did not.
The UN vote saw Australia at odds with the US, which opposed the resolution. The divergence is notable but not a huge deal. Australia was among more than 150 countries supporting the resolution. The US was one of only a handful opposing.
The US always stands with Israel, but both behind the scenes and in public it has been delivering warnings and appeals to Israel to limit civilian deaths.
The difference in voting is unlikely to make ripples in the Australia-US relationship. Albanese and Joe Biden, after their extensive contact in multiple meetings, seem well bonded. The government has been readying to celebrate the US passage of enabling legislation for AUKUS.
Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong took the decision on the UN vote. It did not go to the cabinet’s national security committee, let alone the full cabinet, although some senior ministers were consulted. Treasurer Jim Chalmers has confirmed he was one of those.
Australia’s shift in its UN position has been driven by both the developing situation in the conflict and Labor’s internal and electoral politics.
The Albanese ministry has been publicly very disciplined on almost everything but cabinet solidity has fractured to a degree over this conflict. Industry Minister Ed Husic, a Muslim, has been particularly forthright in condemning what’s happening to civilians in Gaza. Tony Burke and Jason Clare have reflected the feelings of their many pro-Palestinian constituents.
Mike Freelander, a Labor backbencher from south-western Sydney, has found himself caught each way. He’s Jewish and has a big Muslim population in his seat of Macarthur.
Freelander is fully on board with the government shifting its position at the UN, saying Albanese and Wong “had to do something”. He says he believes “strongly in Israel defending itself and the need for the hostages being released – however, what is happening in Gaza is horrific”.
His local Muslim community – 10 per cent of his constituents are Muslim – has been urging him to advocate for a ceasefire. “I’ve met with them and we all agree that it’s very important we stop this carnage.”
Josh Burns, member for the Victorian seat of Macnamara, also Jewish, is one of two Labor members on a cross-party delegation that visited Israel this week. He’s very critical of the UN resolution not targeting Hamas (a US amendment that would have rectified that failed to get support).
Burns provides a sharp reality check. The UN resolution “couldn’t be less relevant to the people here on the ground,” he told the ABC.
He added:“The fighting is going to continue. Hamas is not laying down its weapons. Hamas is not returning hostages. Hamas is still in control of the Gaza Strip.
“Israel is still committed to removing Hamas from power, and Israel is still committed to the return of hostages. So the UN can pass resolutions but those two key factors haven’t changed on the ground.”
For the broad Australian population – leaving aside the Jewish and Muslim communities – the conflict is not likely to have significant political cut through.
In an Essential poll published mid-November, 62 per cent thought Australia should stay out of it entirely. People did worry about potential local fallout – 63 per cent were concerned the war could trigger hostility between Palestinian and Israeli communities in Australia. The poll also found those believing Israel’s response was proportionate had fallen from 42 per cent in October to 35 per cent in November.
Australia could get somewhat closer to the action if it accepts a US request to provide a warship to take part in monitoring in the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping against Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. The government is presently exploring how seriously the US is making this request, which at this stage has come at officials’ level.
On Thursday, Defence Minister Richard Marles appeared to pour a dash of cold water on the idea, telling a news conference: “We’ll consider that request in the normal way. I want to emphasise the focus of our efforts is on our immediate region.”
Next month Wong will go to the Middle East, visiting Israel and as many other countries as can be arranged. It’s a mark of how regionally-centred Australia’s policy is that this will be the peripatetic foreign minister’s first trip to the Middle East since taking office.
Who can be trusted?
In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.
If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.
Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep citynews.com.au strong and free.
Ian Meikle, editor