Interview: Kieran Gilbert, Sky News



KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now is the Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie. Andrew Hastie, thanks for your time. Ed Husic has made the point again today that he believes Palestinian civilians are being collectively punished for the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Is that a fair assessment?

ANDREW HASTIE: Kieran, I think the first few questions are these - number one, does Israel have the right to exist as a nation state? I would say yes. Does it therefore have the right to self-defence? I would say yes. Does the October 7 attacks by Hamas on innocent Israeli women, children and elderly constitute a just cause for using military force by Israel? And I would answer yes. So what we're really talking about now is how it's done and Israel's response has to be, of course, distinct, proportionate, and born out of military necessity. What we've seen so far is an attempt by the IDF to clear Gaza of civilians, and they've been using airstrikes to target Hamas leadership, whilst at the same time preparing for a ground invasion. So I heard Ed's speech during the week, his condolence motion, I thought was a fine speech but I think Labor at the moment, we're hearing a lot of voices out of the Cabinet. We should be hearing one voice and I think that's problematic for the Prime Minister.

KIERAN GILBERT: So are you suggesting that they're divided on this, given some of the points made by Mr Husic, Anne Aly and others where they're reiterating that, while they say that, Israel has got its right to self defence, they're urging some restraint when it comes to civilians? We now, as the CNN correspondent told us just a short time ago, 1500 children having lost their lives in Gaza in the last fortnight?

ANDREW HASTIE: It's absolutely tragic that children on both sides, innocent children on both sides have died. My heart breaks for those children. This is all on Hamas. Hamas started this on October 7 and I think we can all agree that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas, which is committed ideologically, both in it's 1988 charter and in its 2017 charter, to the eradication of the Jewish state. There is no compromise. So Israel has no choice in this move to go after Hamas. So I appreciate Ed's sentiments, he's in a difficult situation, e's calling for nuance but so far, I think it's fair to say that Israel has a right to self-defence and we're hearing too many voices out of the Labor Cabinet, and yet Anthony Albanese is not in control of his Cabinet. I think it is divided and just when he should be rallying his cabinet, he's flying off to the US so let's see what happens this week.

KIERAN GILBERT: I know something that you've mentioned repeatedly in the wake of the atrocities perpetrated by the terrorists, Hamas, is that we need to have clarity on a range of issues, is that what you're alluding to here in terms of Government response, that it needs to be driven by clarity of what is the number one priority and the moral challenge for those responding to it?

ANDREW HASTIE: Number one, moral clarity, what happened on October 7 was murder, plain and simple, cold blooded murder of innocence. We also have to have strategic clarity about who Hamas is. They are a terrorist organisation that has been listed by the Australian Government and moreover, if you read their founding documents, they're not an organisation that's going to compromise, they want to eradicate the Jewish state. And their 1988 charter, which has been superseded, but if you go back to its foundations, they are committed to the obliteration of the Jewish people. So for Israel, they're in a very difficult situation to protect their citizens to protect their borders. We in Australia though remain committed to a two-state solution where both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people can live peaceably side by side in the Middle East. That is my hope still but the next few weeks and months are going to be very difficult and we've seen too many voices out there making moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas and I think that's just disgraceful and false, and that's why I'm calling for clarity about what's at stake here and really moral clarity about what has happened so far.

KIERAN GILBERT: The UK Foreign Secretary warned and urged Israel to abide by the rules of war in their response, in part to avoid giving others in the region cover for them to enter the fray as well. Does that make sense to you that analysis?

ANDREW HASTIE: I think we all want to see Israel uphold what we will consider a just war and that means not just going to war for the right reasons, but also conducting yourself in a manner that is just, which is why I mentioned those principles - being distinct, distinguishing between combatants and non combatants, making sure that your response is proportional, and of course, taking actions only born out of military necessity. So that's really, really important because it is a tinderbox in the Middle East. Passions are running hot, as you know. You have, of course, Israel and Hamas but there's also Hezbollah, Iran. You've got the Gulf states, you've got Egypt, and then you've got Russia and China and the US providing a larger strategic frame and backdrop to this so there's a lot at stake here. We don't want to see a regional war erupt and that's why Israel, so far, has delayed the ground invasion, I think. But you've got to remember there are still hostages, little children who have been taken from their parents and are being used by Hamas as pawns in this terrible tragedy. And I can understand why Israel wants to recover its citizens as we would in Australia if Australians were taken hostages by terrorists.

KIERAN GILBERT: Exactly. Well, that's certainly true and the Prime Minister heads to Washington today, Andrew Hastie, isn't this a timely visit for him to meet the leader of the free world and basically make the point from Australia's perspective while this catastrophe continues in the Middle East, please don't take your eye off the Indo Pacific, because obviously, there remains a bit of uncertainty in our region as well?

ANDREW HASTIE: This is a huge workload for President Joe Biden. Not only does he have the Indo Pacific, he has Ukraine and now he's got the Middle East. Three hotspots all in a way it's related, but certainly complex in and on themselves. So it's really timely the Prime Minister is going to the US. In a sense though, it's also an in person progress report on AUKUS and I think we are behind on all this. We have to hit the first milestone in 2027 of the establishment of Submarine Rotational Force West, about 30 minutes that way Kieran, we've got to convert that base from a conventional base to a nuclear base so that we can host US and UK boats for 2027 and I've got to tell you, we're seeing a lot of inaction from this Government. And US White House, the Senate and the Congress, they'll have a lot of questions for our Prime Minister, and he's got to maintain the confidence of the US particularly as they're preparing to hand over the crown jewels of their military secrets in the form of nuclear powered submarines. But as a final point, that that's why Peter Dutton, that's why I and others, have called on Anthony Albanese to go via the Middle East. He came to Perth yesterday, he could fly directly Israel from here and have a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu as US President Joe Biden has, as Rishi Sunak has, as the German Chancellor has. I think it would send a good message to Israel.

KIERAN GILBERT: There is a view within the Government, as my colleague Andrew Clennell reported earlier, that this would involve a massive security undertaking, dozens of Defence personnel. What would amount to a picture opportunity and a sense that while the US president might be a strong show of support, that the Israeli Prime Minister has other more important things to do, with respect, than meet our Prime Minister.

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think it is important. I think the house call is always more important than the phone call. Being there in person and having a private conversation is always a powerful signal. Yes, there's always a logistical tail that goes with it, but we have special operations, either in Sydney or Perth, who could quickly take on the task and fly with the Prime Minister and provide that additional security. Moreover, the Israelis would do it themselves. They did it for the British, they did it for the Germans, the US obviously take care of themselves. And of course, the Prime Minister isn't as high profile as the US President who is probably the most sought after target in the Middle East for terrorists. If the US could do it, I'm sure we could manage it ourself as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: The ground invasion looming in Israel, this appears a diabolical conundrum with 200 hostages also in Gaza. As someone who has fought in wars, as a soldier yourself, can you give our viewers a sense of the complexities, the sort of gruelling and bloody urban warfare that the IDF faces?

ANDREW HASTIE: This will be an infinitely complex challenge for the IDF and it'll be a ground war largely fought by young Israelis in their late teens, early 20s. So small units, team level operations and we can expect a lot of casualties. I'm thinking back to the Second World War and Stalingrad, for more recent examples, Fallujah in the Iraq war, or Mosul in the last several years where ISIS pretty much destroyed a city to fight against the Coalition. And it's incredibly complex, it's a multi dimensional battle space. Not only is the physical terrain complex, but the human terrain will be complex as well because there'll be an intermixing of obviously civilians and Islamic jihadis. So huge challenge. Discriminant fires will be difficult to achieve and of course, there'll be booby traps, and all sorts of things with destroyed infrastructure, so very, very difficult.

KIERAN GILBERT: Just to take you back to that AUKUS discussion we had earlier ahead of the Prime Minister's Washington visit, there is optimism, fresh hopes as Andrew Clennell put it, that the US Congress will allow the orcas deal through, are you encouraged by that news today?

ANDREW HASTIE: I am encouraged by that news, because we don't have a moment to waste. I've often said that AUKUS is first and foremost a political project. It's an industrial project, it's a technology project, but it's firstly a political project. And if we don't have support of the US, House and Senate we don't have the support of the UK Parliament, this thing falls over. That's why I've called on our whole Parliament in Australia to keep working, to get to the US as much as they can, to work all sides of the Congress and Senate. I know I'll keep doing that and so this news is good news because if we fail at the first political hurdle, the whole thing we will be compromised and at risk.

KIERAN GILBERT: A couple of other matters on your radar at the moment, the Port of Darwin decision, released late Friday, you were critical of the process around that. Would a Coalition government review that decision to allow the lease of the Port of Darwin to continue?

ANDREW HASTIE: I called for that as a review as a backbencher back in the day, I know Peter Dutton was very keen to review it. The Prime Minister himself called the initial decision by the Northern Territory Government a "grave error of judgment", and on Friday, he didn't even stand up. He released instead a press release in hope that no one would see it and I think that's poor form from the Prime Minister. I think it shows that he's weak on national security, I think it shows that he's not confident in his ability to lead on national security issues and he should have stood up to the Australian people and explained because I've got to tell you, we never stopped hearing about the sale of the Port of Darwin. For people, that's a really signature issue. And as China continues to grow a trust deficit with the free world, people are left wondering, how is it that we've leased one of our key ports, or key piece of infrastructure. to an authoritarian regime that that now controls it? So this is a challenge.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, the most recent Defence Annual Report shows were about 3500 under the target for recruitment and retention of our ADF uniformed personnel. It's a tight labour market, as someone who served, how do you get around that?

ANDREW HASTIE: You're right, it is a very tight labour market. The ADF is only hitting 75 per cent of its recruiting target and it's shedding people at a rate of about 11 per cent per year, which is a couple of percentage points higher than the usual banding of around eight to 10 per cent. So we're not keeping people and we're not onboarding people. I think there are a number of issues at stake here, number one is remuneration, number two is family. We recruit people from the southeast corner and the west of this country and then we send them to the Northern Territory and to Queensland. And I think we've got to think about how we structure our Force so that we keep people all over Australia, not just in one part of Australia. But fundamentally, Kieran, I think the government is failing at its key messaging, and that is that we need young Australians, we need recruit 1000 people a year, minimum, by 2040 just to meet our AUKUS, our cyber and our other emerging capability targets. So this is really important and I think we should be calling on people to serve their country because that's what wearing uniform is about. It's not about personal realisation. There are many benefits to service but in the end, you'll be called upon by the Australian people to defend this country and I think that's a noble calling and that's got to be emphasised.

KIERAN GILBERT: Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie, I appreciate your time as always.

ANDREW HASTIE: Pleasure, Kieran. Thank you.