Gaza divisions hurt Australia's soft power: minister

Australia's multiculturalism is one of its greatest sources of soft power but this is being challenged as violence in Gaza fuels impassioned debates and protests, an assistant minister says.

Speaking at the Securing Our Future National Security Conference, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts said diversity was a source of diplomatic influence, highlighted by the global reach of Masterchef Australia and locally born K-pop stars.

"It might sound trivial, but I can tell you that this matters," he told an audience at the Australian National University (ANU) on Wednesday.

Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts
Tim Watts says the politics of division are corrosive for Australia's social cohesion.

"It matters to the way people in the region see Australia and it matters to our ability to engage with them."

However, the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel - which killed 1200 people - and Tel Aviv's subsequent ground offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 33,000 people, could have consequences for this power.

Australians have a range of complex and conflicting perspectives on Israel's bombing campaign and siege on Palestine, with boisterous protests a regular occurrence in recent months. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong signalled her government's support for a Palestinian state on Tuesday but made a plea for mutual respect in debates over the enduring conflict. 

"Unfortunately, the politics of division reward those who seek to highlight differences between our citizens rather than build on what we have in common," Mr Watts said.

"These dynamics are corrosive for our social cohesion."

Politicians must do all they can to maintain social cohesion rather than manipulate community concerns, Mr Watts urged.

Independent MP Allegra Spender maintained that social cohesion was critical and any range of issues from climate change to geopolitical tensions could fragment Australians.

"The quality of discourse is nowhere near what it needs to be," she said.

"When we are divided, we are vulnerable."

Meanwhile, opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie says Australians have not been given a full understanding of the country's national security because of the government's failure to comprehensively articulate threats.

Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie
Andrew Hastie says Russia, China and North Korea are moving to undermine the world order.

"Disturbingly, there is a vast gap between the closed door analytical consensus inside government and the public conversation," he told the audience at the ANU.

Across the world, there are outbreaks of strategic disorder, Mr Hastie said.

Powers like Russia, China and North Korea are moving to undermine the world order that underwrites Australia's peace and prosperity, he said.

"If we're going to talk about that behind closed doors, and then do nothing in the public square to advocate for more defence expenditure - we're not going to be ready," he said.

"We need to be ready over the next decade and at this stage, we're actually going backwards in defence".

He called on Defence Minister Richard Marles to speak openly about the requirements of a planned $368 billion nuclear-powered submarine program, a recruitment and retention crisis within the defence forces and other advocacy issues.

Failing to do so could have "ominous consequences", Mr Hastie warned.

"Weakness is provocative," he said.

"Security is never final, and complacency is almost always fatal."

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