By Tanya Plibersek

14 December 2023




LAURA JAYES: Well, the federal government has been criticised after Australia voted in favour of an immediate ceasefire in the conflict in Gaza at the United Nations. Australia is one of 153 countries to back the non-binding resolution. It comes after the Prime Minister also issued that joint statement with New Zealand and Canada calling on Israel to take steps towards a sustainable ceasefire. Joining me now is Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek. Thanks so much for your time, Tanya. Were these statements and the UN resolution contradictory, in your view?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: No. I think the statement that Australia signed with Canada and New Zealand is a fuller description of the Australian position. It makes very clear that we abhor the civilian toll on both sides and it certainly mentions the shocking attacks that Hamas launched on Israel that began this part of the conflict. And we would have preferred that the United Nations statement included something about those Hamas attacks. Nevertheless, the statement that was signed by 153 countries, including Australia, does call for steps towards a sustainable ceasefire. We've seen a shocking loss of civilian lives on both sides now. We know about 80 per cent of people living in Gaza have been displaced from their homes and there is increasingly nowhere safe for them to go.

JAYES: There has been really rhetoric that has been building over the last couple of weeks that any call for a ceasefire is seen as anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. We had Julian Leeser yesterday slamming this statement from Anthony Albanese, but also Australia's position at the UN. Is there any truth to what he proffered, which is, you know, there's a pushback in inner-city electorates like yours and Labor has an eye to the domestic vote.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think that's actually an appalling thing to say when thousands of civilians have lost their lives. From the very beginning, the government has said that Israel absolutely has a right to defend itself, but it has to do that in accordance with international humanitarian law. Now, of course, we recognise that Hamas must immediately release the remaining hostages. We recognise that Hamas is effectively using Palestinians as human shields, that they launch attacks from civilian facilities, from civilian infrastructure. We recognise and we deplore all of those things. And I really don't think it is right for anybody in Australia to ignore the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster in Israel and in Gaza and somehow try and relate that to domestic politics. I think that's in very poor taste indeed.

JAYES: This has been a really difficult eight weeks, more than eight weeks, for the Jewish diaspora, particularly in areas of Melbourne and Sydney, where there are high Jewish populations. But I think this has been, from the outside looking in, a really difficult issue for Federal Labor to grapple with. There's been statements that seem like they say nothing at times to be quite frank, has this been difficult internally?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, it hasn't been difficult. What's been difficult is for the international community to grapple with what's happened here. And the attacks that were launched by Hamas were obscene, like there's no question that those attacks are just beyond human comprehension. The deliberate targeting of civilians, including babies and older people, people just going about their everyday lives, obscene. And then the holding of hostages, the continued, well, sexual abuse of hostages, the continuation of Hamas's determination to destroy the state of Israel and to attack any Jew is shocking.

On the other hand, at the same time, we are now looking at thousands of innocent civilians who've lost their lives in Gaza. People who were told to move to the south of the country for their safety are now losing their lives in the south of the country. More than 60 per cent of buildings have been destroyed, more than 80 per cent of people have been displaced. There is nowhere safe for those people who are not supporters of Hamas, who are innocent Palestinians just trying to keep themselves and their families alive, we need to have the same sort of concern for them. Every civilian life lost here is a tragedy. We mourn every civilian life here, whether they are Israeli, whether they are Palestinian, and that's why we support a sustainable ceasefire. It can't be one sided. Of course Hamas has to release civilians and lay down its arms, but we want to see the ability for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza. And at the moment, that's just not safe and possible.

JAYES: Yeah, I don't have any confidence that that is going to happen anytime soon, but we do watch with interest and we are well across every detail here at Sky News. I want to just change topics now. We end the year, we don't get to talk to you enough, actually. So, I feel like this will be our last interview for this year. We'll hopefully speak to you more in the New Year, but we end this year with the government, it's been a pretty messy end. The polls are the way they know once talked about Anthony Albanese being a two-term Prime Minister. Now, that's definitely not a guarantee. Do you lament the last couple of months? Could Labor have done better?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think it's been a very difficult time internationally, with the crisis we were just talking about and the other ongoing problems in Ukraine and so on. And domestically, we've seen the impact of inflation and cost-of-living problems on people's budgets and their day to day lives. But I think every government gets to a stage where you're just slogging through and doing the best for people. And if you look at yesterday's mid-year economic and fiscal update you see some very positive news there, including Labor is the first government in 15 years to have a surplus. We've made about $50 billion worth of savings since coming to government, and that means hundreds of billions of dollars saved over the term of our government because we'll be paying less in interest. We don't have to borrow as much money. That puts downward pressure on inflation. We've seen stellar jobs growth and that's a very good story. We've begun to see wages going up and we've been able to invest $23 billion in helping people with cost-of-living measures. So, I think there's a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. There's a good story to tell in the New Year.

JAYES: I thought you were going to say a good story to tell in the Murray-Darling Basin. And that was certainly one of the highlights, I think, for the government last week.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh well, also that -

JAYES: But Victoria is not on board. It's not all smooth sailing.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, well, it's never all smooth sailing when you're in government, Laura. But the Murray-Darling Basin is a terrific step forward. We're going to return about 180,000 Olympic swimming pools of water to the river system, and that's so important. As we go into hotter, drier weather again over the next few years, we're going into a drier cycle. It means that those 100 year old river gums are going to survive. It means that the native fish and birds are able to keep breeding, the platypuses along the riverbanks. It's so important for the environment, but it's also really important for communities. The toll that it takes when during a drought, the riverbed through your town is dry for over a year at a time, as we saw last time we were in drought, takes a real psychological and economic toll on communities. Murray-Darling river system is the drinking water for 3 million Australians. So, the fact that we've been able to pass legislation to give us more time, more options, more money and more accountability to deliver the plan fully is great. And I've already returned more water to the environment than those opposite did in the nine years that they were in government and I've got a really positive view of what we can do for that million square kilometres of inland Australia that is the Murray-Darling Basin. Better for communities, better for farmers, better for tourists, better for industry, and, of course, very much better for the environment.

JAYES: Okay, we'll hold you to that. And we look forward to doing so in 2024. Tanya Plibersek thanks so much.