Wednesday, March 30, 2016

John Lyons: Israel’s ALP fan lobbies for arms maker (The Australian, 16 March 2016)

The Australian
March 16, 2016 12:00AM

A key figure behind a Labor Party friends-of-Israel group is also a lobbyist for the Australian subsidiary of one of Israel’s ­largest arms manufacturers.

Mary Easson has also played an active role in the emotive ­debate within the Labor Party over its policy towards Israel.

Ms Easson is one of five members of the NSW branch of the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue. At the same time, she is a lobbyist for Elbit, according to her latest listing on the federal registrar.

The fact that Ms Easson’s company, Probity International Pty Ltd, is lobbying for Elbit is ­almost certain to lead to anger within the ALP from those who have taken trips organised by the AILD.

Ms Easson has been locked in a brutal fight inside the Labor Party with former foreign minister Bob Carr over policy towards Israel. Ms Easson wants the ALP to retain its bipartisan support for Israel while Mr Carr wants a deadline for Israel to cease its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and to return to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Elbit is one of Israel’s largest manufacturers of bombs, mortars, cyber warfare systems and drones and much of its ordnance was used in the 2014 war with Gaza. On its website, Elbit says one of its products — the Soltam Spear — has “unprecedented lethality”.

The patron of the NSW branch of the AILD, former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, said he was unaware of Ms Easson’s connection to Elbit. “I am very comfortable saying if there is any contribution made in NSW and that is made available for trips to Israel, that information should be publicly available,” he said.

Since it was formed in 2010, the AILD has sent 33 union and Labor Party officials to Israel — Ms ­Easson told The Australian most of those had been sent by the ­Victorian branch and she did not know of any being sent by the NSW branch.

NSW convener Greg ­Holland said he took a group of unionists in 2014, which included now NSW ALP secretary Kaila Murnain and the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Perth, Tim Hammond.

Yesterday, Ms Murnain would not answer any questions related to her trip and Mr Hammond said he was conscious these trips were “highly sensitive” and would make no comment.

When asked whether her role as a lobbyist for Elbit presented a conflict of interest when being part of a Labor Party group, Ms Easson at first said she worked for Elbit Australia, not the parent company. Later she said: “I am employed by Intech Strategies and Intech Strategies is employed by Elbit Australia.” Ms Easson said she did not know who funded the trips for unionists. “I’m not being coy, I ­really don’t know the answer,” she said. “How they get their funds I don’t know — I guess I should have asked.”

She said she joined the NSW branch of the AILD 12 months ago when it formed and it had not raised any funds or sent anybody on overseas trips.

No one associated with the AILD contacted by The Australian was prepared or able to say who funded the trips. She said Elbit Systems of ­Australia managing director Dan Webster had yesterday ­assured her no donation had been made from Elbit to the AILD.

In October last year, three key NSW union officials went on an AILD trip — the secretary of the NSW branch of the Rail Tram and Bus Union, Alex Claassens, the secretary of the NSW Police Association, Peter Remfrey, and the Transport Workers Union’s Polo Guilbert-Wright.

Mr Claassens said he was ­approached by the Victorian branch and did not know of the Elbit connection when he went.

“The question for the people who run the organisation and the individual concerned is should it be put out there for people to see?” Mr Claassens said.

One of the key figures in the AILD, ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick, would not give any specifics about who funded the AILD’s trips. “Many individuals pay for their participation in the trips. AILD does respond favourably to individuals who make requests for a subsidy where it is appropriate to do so,” he said.

When asked who funded the AILD, he said: “AILD employs a variety of fundraising methods to support its activities.”

Australia-Israel & Jewish ­Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said the 2014 trip was “mainly” an AILD trip but that his group made a financial contribution. “We certainly contributed something towards that group in terms of helping arrange some meetings and some sort of ­financial subsidy,” he said.

Ms Easson has written in support of the current ALP policy — she was not a delegate but wrote a live blog from the NSW Labor conference in February. When the conference rejected motions she opposed, she wrote that “the moment the fanatical anti-Israel forces were stopped and stood up to by sensible people in NSW Labor.”

Several motions called for the banning of products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and mandating that all Labor MPs who visited Israel on paid trips should spend equal time on the Palestinian side. The conference accepted a ­motion that “encouraged” party members to spend “substantial time in both Israel and Palestine.”

Mr Holland did not think the AILD should have to reveal who funded trips. Asked if unionists who had been on these trips should have been told of Ms Easson’s connection to Elbit, he said: “That’s up to Mary to do.” Asked about the possible conflict between the AILD, whose aim was a peaceful solution, and an arms manufacturer, he said: “I’m not sure what they (Elbit) do and how they do it. They might have peaceful solutions to conflicts.” He had the utmost confidence in Ms Easson and her probity.

Federal Labor MP Melissa Parke — who has not taken one of the trips — said: “Given the significant numbers of ALP members who are apparently being taken on these trips to Israel, it is a concern not to know who is providing the funds, particularly where there is a person associated with an Israeli weapons manufacturer on the AILD committee.

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