Foreign Minister Marise Payne first learned of the PM’s plans two days before the announcement. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
Top officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) were not consulted by the Prime Minister before he announced he was contemplating moving Australia’s embassy in Israel.
Last week, Scott Morrison stoked anger in Indonesia and Middle Eastern countries when he said he was reviewing the long-standing policy which keeps Australia’s embassy in Tel Aviv, rather than Jerusalem.
Labor accused the Government of undermining the Middle East peace process in a last-ditch attempt to hold the seat of Wentworth, which has a substantial Jewish-Australian population, ahead of a by-election.
During Senate estimates hearings in Canberra today, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong grilled Foreign Minister Marise Payne and DFAT’s Secretary Frances Adamson about the decision-making process.
Senator Payne said she first learned the Prime Minister wanted to review the policy when he rang her on Sunday, two days before the announcement.
DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson said her department swung into action when briefed of the government’s announcement. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)
Ms Adamson said she was told about the announcement early on Monday afternoon, and confirmed her department wasn’t consulted by the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister before the decision was made.
But she said DFAT “swung into action” after she was told, and drew up a list of between 10 and 20 countries which had to be notified that evening.
Senator Wong described the process as “hugely rushed”, and argued it risked infuriating Australian partners which support Palestine.
“Do you think it’s appropriate that DFAT have such a short period of time to manage the fallout with other nations?” she asked.
“It’s not normal to have a decision like this so rushed. I appreciate you are defending your department, but don’t defend the indefensible.”
Ms Adamson responded, arguing she was “not defending the indefensible”.
“We were able to contact, either through embassies in Canberra or overseas missions, all the [relevant countries],” she said.
“I had no concerns about the sequence of timing because we were able to ensure briefings were conducted.
“We have received no complaints from any government that they were not briefed in advance.”
Indonesia is a strong critic of Israel, and it responded angrily to the Government’s announcement, with its Foreign Minister sending a message to Senator Payne calling it a “slap [to] Indonesia’s face”.
But Senator Payne said there had been a “profound lack of progress” on peace negotiations in recent years, and the Prime Minister had “every right” to contemplate a new position in response.
“There has been considerable public discussion … about how we may be able to address some of these issues,” she said.
“A Prime Minister and a Government are entitled to look at policy positions taken in the past to see if they continue to be in Australia’s national interest.
“No matter how many times you assert a decision has been made — the Prime Minister [only] wants to review a number of aspects of Middle Eastern policy, and we are discussing them in an open and constructive way.”
“I think you should have considered it before you announced it,” Senator Wong responded.