Tony Burke supports flying Palestinian flag, cautions against ‘competitive grief’

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Senior Labor Minister Tony Burke says he supports his local council’s decision to fly the Palestinian flag – and expects it will happen more broadly – because Palestinian Australians whose family members are dying overseas have not had their grief acknowledged in equal ways as the country responded to the Israel-Hamas war.

In emotive comments that cautioned Australia against engaging in “competitive grief” as horrific events unfolded in the Middle East, Burke said civilian families in Gaza would be the first to die as food, water and fuel ran out under an Israeli siege.

Tony Burke is the third Albanese government minister to speak out publicly about the way Palestinian Australians have felt since the Israel-Hamas war broke out.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“We need to be able to distinguish, in the debate in Australia, between Hamas and Palestinians. There have been too many occasions where the two have been conflated,” he said on ABC’s Radio National on Friday morning.

Burke is the third Albanese government minister to speak out publicly about the way Palestinian Australians had felt treated since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, following the militant group’s deadly attack on southern border towns on October 7. Ministers Ed Husic and Anne Aly, who are both Muslim, last week said they feared Palestinians were being collectively punished for Hamas’ actions.

Burke earlier this month came under pressure from former prime minister John Howard, as well as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which accused him of a “complete lack of leadership” in The Australian, when he did not explicitly condemn a rally that broke out in his electorate following the Hamas attack. Some attendees had appeared to celebrate the assault.

On Friday, Burke repeated his condemnation of Hamas. But he said Australia often fell into an immature debate where people were accused of making excuses for Hamas, if they acknowledged the history before this month’s attack or spoke in favour of the Palestinian people.

“It’s not. It’s simply the case that people have a right to be able to grieve when innocent life is lost,” he said. “And the concept of competitive grief … which has driven some of the media, is something that I don’t want to see in Australia. We do have the maturity, we need to have the maturity to respect for each other’s grief.”

The arts and employment minister, who has represented the western Sydney seat of Watson since 2004, said people in his electorate were receiving images of death and destruction from overseas family members over WhatsApp every day.

“I had a professional woman say to me the other day, she has never seen so many images of dead babies in her life. Often the images they’re seeing turn out to be of people they know,” he said.

“If I go through the suburbs, across from Belmore, Lakemba, where I live in Punchbowl, through to Bankstown — pretty much everybody knows somebody who has lost someone.”

“We can’t say we only grieve for certain people who are slaughtered. We can’t have a situation, as a nation, where we only formally acknowledge particular deaths.”

But he said there was nowhere in Australia where the colours of Palestinians had been acknowledged as worthy of grief until Canterbury-Bankstown Council in his electorate chose to fly the Palestinian flag – a decision he said he completely supported and expected to be repeated more broadly.

“They were truly representing the grief that is in the community. And once again, it is not the Hamas flag that’s flying. It’s the Palestinian flag. It’s a flag that gives people the chance to know that there is recognition and not selective grief,” he said.

“We can’t say we only grieve for certain people who are slaughtered. We can’t have a situation, as a nation, where we only formally acknowledge particular deaths.”

As public debate and protests erupted over the lighting of monuments in Israeli colours, Burke said he “absolutely respected” there being places where people could grieve with the Israeli flag and colours. But he said the Opera House in particular was an arts and cultural precinct, “and it’s sensible for us to start getting back to that”.

Burke said he did not want to get into a debate about labels used to describe the conflict – such as genocide or apartheid – but would focus on what was happening to individuals after Israel’s defence minister declared a complete siege on Gaza and used the term “human animals”.

“If neither fuel nor water is provided, then people say to me, who’s going to run out of water first? The family that evacuated because their home was bombed, or the Hamas fighters?

“Who’s going to be more affected by the impossibility of importing medicines, will it be the Hamas fighter, or will it be the people in a hospital? Who’s going to have the back-up [power when fuel runs out]: the Hamas fighter, or the people on life support, or a baby in an incubator?

“The impact of that decision is ticking. It’s being felt now … And while it hasn’t had the same attention as the direct bombing, in terms of the humanitarian impact of that siege, we are moments away from horrific impacts.”

He said Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s statement this week, in which she said the way Israel defends itself mattered, was highly significant.

“The Australian government acknowledges that any country in the world, after an attack like Hamas, will want to respond directly to Hamas,” he said. But it wanted to protect every civilian life, including Palestinians, and ensure there was a humanitarian response.

Wong’s calls for a humanitarian pause in fighting were forcefully rejected by Israeli MP Sharren Haskel, who spent eight years living in Australia. “Try and imagine that after the 9/11 attacks America was asked to supply fuel money, food and medication to al-Qaeda. Never,” she told this masthead.

Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Amir Maimon, has also disagreed with Wong’s characterisation of the humanitarian situation in Gaza. “According to my information, the humanitarian situation is fair,” he said on Wednesday.

Maimon praised the Albanese government’s solidarity with Israel while calling for the world to remember “we [Israelis] are the victims, not the aggressor”.

“The focus at the moment is on the other side. People are trying to suggest that [there is] some sort of moral equivalence. There is no moral equivalence,” he said. “We were attacked. Our people were slaughtered. We did not ask for this war”.

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