Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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19 October 2023

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Well, along with civilian and commercial charters, the Defence Force has already been involved in Middle East airlifts for days. To discuss that and to fulfil a loose booking I think we flagged with him before last week's referendum, Assistant Defence Minister and Assistant Minister for the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, joins us now. We might get to the Republic in a moment, Matt, but just with that upgraded travel advice to Lebanon, would we be right in assuming that the RAAF is involved in contingency planning, if it came to that, to get Australians out?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: As the Foreign Minister outlined, Greg, this is a rapidly evolving situation and the latest travel warning for Australians in Lebanon is to seriously consider returning to Australia. At this stage there are commercial flights that are available, but we'll continue to assess that situation and if the need arises, then we will consider military flights and other commercial arrangements similar to the ones that we've engaged in Israel with Qantas being engaged, we've had RAAF KC-30 that have been involved and so far about 750 Australians have been transported home safely.

JENNETT: This would be an order of magnitude larger, wouldn't it, in the planning, even if it's never executed as an airlift by weight of numbers of Australians in Lebanon?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yes, it would be a much larger number, most likely, and obviously that contingency planning would be taking place at the moment, as Penny outlined. The situation is still that flights are available on a commercial basis, and we just encourage Australians that are there, or those that are in Australia and have loved ones there, to continually monitor the advice that comes through the Smart Traveller website that people can access all around the world.

JENNETT: Travel advice changes are fed by multiple sources. One of them is intelligence gathered by us and our partners. What does this upgrade in relation to Lebanon point to? Clearly, there must be a heightened expectation of armed conflict in southern Lebanon, if not all of Lebanon?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, as Penny outlined earlier, the security situation and the warning level has been upgraded to a level four. That means that there is a prospect of a risk to life in that region, and that's why the government has issued that warning advice and we ask all Australians in that region to closely monitor that advice and consider returning home as quickly as possible.

JENNETT: All right, let's move on from Lebanon. Just a broader reflection on the way that Australians view the conflict happening in the Middle East. We've heard views expressed today by your colleagues, Ed Husic and Anne Aly. Do you believe that Palestinians are being collectively punished for Hamas?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I think the point that Ed and Anne are making is one that's been reinforced by the Prime Minister and the government throughout the course of this week. And that's the importance of upholding international law and the sanctity of civilian human life in this conflict. And I think the point that Ed was making is that civilian lives on both sides of this conflict are just as important as lives on the other side.

JENNETT: But by inference or implication, using that phrase collective punishment actually points to a transgression of the rules of law, doesn't it? That seems to be their view.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the motion that was passed by the House of Representatives that Ed and Anne and all members of the government supported was to condemn Hamas and their actions to recognise the right of Israel to defend itself and to recognise the right of Palestinian people to live in peace. And in doing so, both sides of this conflict have to uphold international law. And we've all been shocked by the vision of innocent life being lost, particularly the targeting of a hospital and the shocking nature of that. So, the point that we're making is that international law, particularly humanitarian law and the sanctity of human life, must be upheld on both sides of this conflict.

JENNETT: No one in the Labor Caucus, you're correct, voted against that bipartisan motion, which, among other things, said the Parliament stands with Israel and recognises its inherent right to defend itself. Could we be seeing in the comments of Ed Husic, perhaps Maria Vamvakinou, but also Anne Aly, some sort of discomfort that this lent too far in recognition of Israel's rights to defend itself to the expense of Palestinian people?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think the point they're making is that we don't want to get into an argument where some are saying that the value of an innocent human life on one side of the argument is worth more than an innocent life on the other side. And that's certainly not a position that the government supports, or I think anyone in the parliament would advocate. So, it goes back to that notion of ensuring that international law is upheld. And there are rules around conflict, and we ask all sides of this conflict to uphold those laws and refrain from the targeting of innocent civilians.

JENNETT: All right, fair enough. Let's move to the matter less immediate, but the one that I think we touched on when we last spoke, Matt Thistlethwaite, Republic, sorry, the Voice referendum has been run and lost. Now, have you had any indications with the Prime Minister or others about removing this Assistant Minister for the Republic title? What on earth are you going to do for the remainder of this term?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: No, the Prime Minister hasn't indicated he wants to remove the title.

JENNETT: Your mind must have turned to this.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I haven't had a discussion with him. I said to you last week that I thought if the referendum went down, it would make it harder, and that is the case. It's definitely going to make it harder for us to look at this issue of a Republic anytime soon. But having said that, Labor has a longer term vision for our nation and it's one of a mature, independent nation with an Australian as our head of state, and that remains part of the Labor Party platform. And I am very passionate about this issue, and I will continue to advocate for that. But at the moment, the priority of the Government is, of course, assisting Australians with cost of living relief and many Australians are suffering because of higher interest rates, inflation. We want to assist them to get through this difficult period. I don't think that's the right time to be discussing a Republic in an Australian head of state whilst people are burdened with the impact of cost of living. And secondly, Greg, out of respect for Indigenous Australians who have asked for some time to reflect on the result, we want to consult with them before we move forward.

JENNETT: I understand that, but you are not going to have much on your plate under the Assistant Minister for Republic title. What have we got, 18 months at most, two years left in this Parliament? It's not going to happen.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We're certainly not going to be pushing it during this term of the Parliament. But that doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about the issue.

JENNETT: What about a constitutional convention, I think that's also in the ALP platform as a mechanism to generate conversations not only on the Republic, but also on four year terms and other matters that are written in, is that a mechanism you will press ahead with?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The one thing that I think we've found out from the recent referendum is that very few Australians know any of the details of our constitution, unfortunately. So, there is a need for us and that's the one good thing that's come out of the referendum. I think that the Australians have been talking about the constitution, what's in it, what's not. We do need to be able to stimulate that conversation more and it may be through a constitutional convention, it may be through a constitutional commission that has a role of permanently working with the Australian people on these issues. It may be through citizens assemblies. We're looking at all of those issues.

JENNETT: Okay, well, that means we can explore those further with you. You're a glass half full sort of guy, it seems on constitutional change.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm an optimist on this, Greg.

JENNETT: All right, Matt Thistlethwaite, I'd expect nothing less from you. Thanks for joining us.



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