Senate debates

Thursday, 15 March 2012


Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012; Second Reading

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

The Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, which was initially foreshadowed by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, is an important acknowledgement of the debt that this country owes to people who have been injured in the course of terrorist incidents overseas. We should never forget the high price that Australia has paid due to the activity, in particular, of Islamist terrorists.

Since 11 September 2001, some 300 Australians have been killed or injured in terrorist incidents overseas. We lost Australians in the World Trade Centre. We lost many Australians in Bali—not once, but twice. We lost Australians in London and we lost Australians in Jakarta. Some 300 of our fellow citizens have been killed or injured. Let us never forget that those bombs went off because the perpetrators of those outrages believe that our way of life is a satanic excrescence. That is what in the perversion of their own minds they believe. The people who died or were injured in those terrorist incidents were targeted precisely because of the way of life, the values and the civilisation of which we are part. Australia has been targeted precisely because we are part of and proud to be part of Western civilisation: a nation which lives by the values and takes pride in its identity as a part of Western civilisation. That is why the terrorists hate us.

It should be remembered that after each of the terrorist incidents the Australian government has been there to help. Centrelink assistance has been rendered. Medical expenses have been paid. I want to congratulate governments of both persuasions for the effort they have made to help Australians and to continue to help Australians who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed in terrorist incidents overseas.

We have to acknowledge the fact that these people have suffered for their country in a way not entirely different from the sufferings that our soldiers have faced in the struggle against terrorism. They were not random victims. They were victims because of the way of life of this country and they were chosen as targets because of the way of life of the civilisation in which we participate. We should not underestimate the ongoing suffering of those who were injured and of the families of those who were injured and killed.

We cannot think that our duty to them as a nation ends simply because they were given Centrelink assistance to come back to this country and simply because their relatives were given Centrelink assistance to do what they could to help. We cannot think that our duty to them has ended just because their medical expenses for the immediate injuries that they suffered were paid. There is a lifetime of pain for those people, physical and psychological, and it needs to be acknowledged, recognized and in some way made up for by the wider Australian community.

What this bill proposes is that the national government establish a scheme to compensate the Australian victims of overseas terrorist attacks that is analogous with the victims-of-crimes schemes which have long operated in most of the Australian states and territories.

If an Australian is the victim of a criminal act in this country he or she will usually receive some form of compensation, some monetary benefit, from the state and territory governments. It is not lavish. It is not the sort of thing which is going to enable people to live in luxury for the rest of their lives—far from it. It is not full compensation in the sense that a lawyer would understand a damages award in a personal injuries case as compensation. Nevertheless, it is an important acknowledgement by our community of the unjustified and completely abhorrent pain and suffering that the victim of crime has been put through.

The bill proposes the establishment of a federal scheme, analogous to the state victims-of-crime schemes, purely for the Australian victims of overseas terrorist acts. It is a modest, responsible, and necessary measure by this parliament for the benefit of those people.

I accept that there are some issues with oppositions proposing measures of this kind that might create a charge upon the revenue. I would be very happy for this bill to be taken over by the government. The coalition would welcome that. The government has proposed a way of helping the Australian victims of terrorist incidents overseas but for reasons that are not clear it has not proceeded. I would be grateful to see it advanced, whether here or in the other place. In the meantime, the opposition offers this private senator's bill in order to meet the need that I have identified.

We must stand by our fellow Australians in trouble and those who were targeted because they were Australians, because they were emblems of our way of life. They deserve this modest measure of recognition, help and acknowledgement. I commend the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbot, who initiated this proposal and has driven the proposal for several years now. And I commend the bill to the Senate.

9:37 am

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, brought forth by Senator Brandis and the coalition. I want to take this opportunity to put on record my strongest condemnation of acts of terrorism and the form terrorism takes. More often than not terrorism takes the form of an indiscriminate attack on civilians and bystanders whose only crime has been to be a member of a particular polity or to be in a particular place.

Terrorists do not engage in conflict under the normal rules of engagement by which state armed forces are bound. That, of course, means that they do not abide by international humanitarian law. They have no concept of the distinction between legitimate targets of military activity as defined through the instruments of international humanitarian law, and civilian targets—civilian targets being, more often than not, the innocent bystanders in terrorist acts. Instead, the purpose of terrorist organisations, by definition, is to create such insecurity and such uncertainty and fear in a political culture as to effect some sort of radical change. While the aim of most terrorist organisations is to effect changes in the policies of states, their means are violence against private citizens, who, more often than not, are the victims of terrorist acts.

Australia has not been immune from terrorism in the past. While the most recent and bloody stain on the national consciousness was in Kuta, Bali, in October 2002, Australians have been affected by terrorism at an average of 30 victims per year over the last decade. In some cases, Australians have been bystanders caught up in events. In other cases, as in Bali, they have been specifically targeted for their nationality and what they represent: democracy, participation and freedom—values which, in this country, we have enshrined in instruments of law and in our Constitution.

It is my very strong belief that political violence can never be justified. Even under the most extreme circumstances there is no excuse for resorting to force, brutality and murder, as terrorists do, especially against the innocent victims terrorists target in their search for the most vulnerable and most dramatic display of force.

I want to make it clear that I and the Labor government deplore acts of terrorism, and we have the greatest of compassion for those Australians caught up in the tragic displays of political violence perpetrated by terrorists. There is simply no sense of justice or dignity attached to the actions of the extremists who are prepared to sacrifice innocent people for political ends.

And in this new age of asymmetric warfare, in which non-state actors pose an increased, more widely dispersed threat to the citizens of the world, especially those who respect the proper processes of democratic decision-making, it is important for us to have strong, consistent and comprehensive means of addressing terrorism related issues.

I want also to recognise the impact of criminal activity on victims of crime. It can be devastating for individuals and families who suffer the effects of violence, insecurity and shock brought about by criminal activity. In this case, the criminal activities are under the guise of paramilitary activity. Like any serious injury, the effects of crime are both physical and psychological and can endure long after the actual act has subsided. Associated with the immediate effect of crime can be prolonged periods of shock, depression, stress, loss of esteem and disorientation.

In every Australian state and territory, the disabling effect of the trauma inflicted upon victims of crime is recognised through victims-of-crime schemes, making victims eligible for lump-sum payments under criminal injuries schemes. While the state and territory schemes do include the effects of terrorism, jurisdiction for these schemes does not extend beyond state or territory borders. Victims of terrorism overseas do not currently have a scheme to recognise the effect of terrorism on their lives.

That said, over the last decade and longer, the Australian government has gone to some length to support its citizens who have been affected by terrorism overseas. Since September 11, a number of Australians have been injured and more than 100 have been killed in overseas terrorist incidents. Assistance has been directed to victims of these events, including under the disaster health care assistance schemes, ex gratia assistance, consular and repatriation assistance and short-term financial assistance. The September 11th victim compensation fund, for example, provided assistance to those injured in the terrible attacks upon the World Trade Centre in New York, and their families. Substantial payments were made to the next of kin of Australians killed in those attacks in recognition of the sudden, unpredictable and tragic loss of life in that event. In total, in the last decade, more than $12 million has been expended on assistance and support for victims of overseas terrorism. But it is clear that the Australian government does require a way to recognise victims of overseas terrorism that is both clear and consistent. And I want to commend the original motivation of the bill before the Senate, which arises from the advocacy of the member for Paterson and the Leader of the Opposition. The purpose of the opposition's bill is to provide additional financial support, I understand, of up to $75,000 for Australians who are affected by terrorism overseas, or their next of kin.

The bill before the Senate at the moment requires the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department to administer payments to Australian families who have suffered as a result of an international terrorist act. But while one could support the original intention of this bill we are debating here today, the Australian government is already acting on this issue. Last year the then Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, introduced the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill to achieve a similar purpose to that of the bill we are currently debating. Unlike the bill brought on today by the coalition, that bill includes robust criteria for the eligibility of victims under the proposed scheme and a framework for administering payments. That framework includes the principles and guidelines by which any scheme would be administered, including the nature, duration and impact of the injury; the likelihood of future loss, injury or disease; the circumstance in which injury was incurred; the relationships between victims; the number of claimants relating to a particular incident; and other relevant factors.

The government bill currently before the parliament also seeks to clarify an ambiguity within the coalition's bill, relating to whether the scheme might apply retrospectively. As I have mentioned, over a long period of time the Australian government has attempted to recognise the impact on victims of overseas terrorism through ad hoc means. While it is not clear in the legislation we are debating, my understanding from public comments by the coalition on this bill is that their scheme is intended to apply retrospectively, duplicating some of the good work already done by the previous government programs of which I have already spoken and which are already in place.

With an issue of such traumatic impact and on a matter on which there is generally bipartisan support, I believe it is disappointing to have the opposition bring forward a private senator's bill to attempt to grandstand rather than actually seek to solve a problem. Despite the various technical and logistical issues with this bill that are clarified or resolved in the government's bill and despite a firm commitment from the Gillard Labor government to continue to pursue a compensation scheme that is essentially the same scale proposed by the coalition, the Liberal and National parties have found it necessary to showboat on this issue rather than get behind the serious and comprehensive efforts of this government. If they were genuine about wanting to do something in relation to the principle and the main objectives outlined in the government's bill to assist victims of overseas terrorism, they would have done so. They would have done so in supporting the government's bill. Instead, what we have here today is grandstanding, bringing forth their own private senator's bill for no other apparent means but to politicise and play a grandstanding game with this very important and significant issue. That is disappointing. But at the end of the day what is most important is that victims of overseas terrorism are supported by their nation. I sincerely hope that when the government's bill comes before this chamber the opposition will be as supportive about a bill that comprehensively addresses this issue as they are about the political and parliamentary tactics they have employed in bringing on this debate today.

9:49 am

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. Compensation for victims of terrorist attacks is an extremely important matter for Australians and there is clearly tripartisan or cross-party support for this principle. Because of its importance, however, the mechanism for administering and funding this compensation must be addressed both effectively and responsibly, and that is where the Australian Greens believe there is still a necessary area for further discussion.

This bill proposes financial assistance of up to $75,000 for Australians who are injured or hospitalised, or whose next of kin is killed, in an offshore terrorism incident. The details of the scheme are not included in the bill. They are left to be included in guidelines, which have not yet been developed. The bill indicates that these guidelines would be developed by the minister.

Since September 11, 2001 more than 200 Australians have been injured and more than 100 have been killed in overseas terrorist incidents. Significant targeted assistance was provided to victims of those events, including through disaster healthcare assistance schemes, ex gratia assistance, consular and repatriation assistance and immediate short-term financial assistance through the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment. The Australian government has expended more than $12 million on assistance and support for those individuals and their families. To date, payments to victims of terrorism have been made ex gratia, using the executive power of the Commonwealth under section 61 of the Constitution. The Prime Minister and/or the cabinet decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether an ex gratia payment is to be made and have done so in overseas terrorism cases such as Bali and Mumbai. Ex gratia payments can be made from either departmental or administered appropriations. However, an appropriation must have an outcome that covers the payment.

I understand that there has been considerable negotiation between the government and the opposition on this matter in the House. There has been delay on the part of the government in taking action on this matter—a matter of great importance to Australians. The Australian Greens share the opposition's frustration in this regard. However, we believe it is important to have an effective scheme in place which is properly established and responsibly funded.

The main point of disagreement between the coalition and the government appears to be that the government has made a policy decision to not make retrospective payments, but the coalition has not made such a commitment. Senator Brandis's bill does not specify that the proposed framework applies to particular events, and neither does it specifically state whether or not it applies retrospectively. It provides that the minister must make guidelines which include the eligibility criteria for providing assistance of up to $75,000. Payments are made only if the requirements in the guidelines have been met. However, Senator Brandis has not ruled out the possibility that previous events which have been the subject of government assistance to victims may be included, whereas I understand that the government does not intend to declare events pre-dating passage of the legislation as being eligible for financial assistance.

Retrospective application of the scheme would effectively duplicate assistance and support previously provided to those victims. As mentioned earlier, the Australian government has expended more than $12 million on assistance and support for individuals and families affected in terrorist acts since September 2001. In addition, the September 11th victim compensation fund provided generous financial assistance to those injured and the next of kin of those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks, including Australians. Payments of between $250,000 and $7.1 million were made to the next of kin of six Australians killed in those attacks.

The Australian Greens are concerned that retrospective application of the scheme would have significant impacts on the cost of the scheme. If applied prospectively, the estimated cost of Senator Brandis's bill is approximately $2.25 million per annum. This is based on the fact that approximately 300 Australians have been killed or injured in acts of terrorism overseas in the past 10 years, which works out to be an average of 30 victims per year. The figure of $2.25 million per annum assumes a payment of the full amount of $75,000 to each Australian harmed and to the next of kin of each Australian killed in an overseas terrorist incident, applied prospectively. However, if applied retrospectively the estimated cost of Senator Brandis's bill is approximately $24 million. This is an estimate by the government based on the number of Australians killed in terrorist events since 11 September 2001.

There are questions about how the bill will be funded. The bill proposes that payments would be funded from the contingency reserve, which is designed to reflect any unexpected events that cannot be assigned to individual programs. The Australian Greens do not believe that this is a satisfactory funding mechanism for such an important scheme and call on the opposition to indicate how they intend to pay for this scheme in a fiscally responsible manner into the future. Compensation for victims of terrorist attacks is an extremely important matter for Australians and there is clearly cross-party support for the principle. Because of its importance, the mechanism for administering and funding this compensation must be addressed both effectively and responsibly.

The Australian Greens do not believe Senator Brandis's bill provides a complete framework for the administration of these payments or an adequate funding mechanism for the scheme. We believe that these matters require, and would certainly benefit from, further examination by a Senate committee.

Accordingly, I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

     and the bill be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 8 May 2012.

9:56 am

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this legislation and to note with some regret that senators in other parts of the chamber have seen fit to express support for this principle, describing it, in the words of Senator Wright, as a tri-partisan commitment towards acknowledging the pain and suffering of those who are victims of international terrorism yet cannot bring themselves to actively support this legislation, which has been carefully thought through and presents the framework for provision of assistance to people who are victims of terrorism. It will contain details of operation, as determined by regulation, and therefore, appropriately, does not specify details of the way in which grants should be approved. That is appropriately left to an administrative process below the legislation itself. Despite the relatively easy decision that the Senate could make today to support the framework for provision of assistance to victims of international terrorism, it appears that is not going to happen.

The fact is that assistance to people who have been victims of terrorism is a fairly serious gap in our victim support arrangements in this country. For some time, states and territories have had victims-of-crime schemes which have assisted people in a whole range of settings, including, at least historically, for quite minor crimes, and yet people who have been unfortunate enough to be Australians overseas who have experienced the effect of one of the most heinous and scarring of crimes—that is, a deliberate terrorist act—have not, until now, had available to them some form of financial assistance. That clearly has to change. Despite the discussion on the government's part of the need to do this, it is the case that it is the coalition which has brought forward legislation to respond to that need. It is not unfair to describe the government's own legislation as a reaction to that move rather than a parallel exercise that happened to have been engaged in before the coalition took this issue on.

Clearly, in administering a framework for this legislation, there needs to be consultation about how it will work. The Attorney-General would be required to consult regularly with representatives of victims and their families, other professionals working in the field, international humanitarian agencies and relevant bodies to ensure that the scheme was effective and met the needs of victims. Individual payments are capped at $75,000, which is pretty much in line with the schemes operating in the states and territories.

The concept is hard to argue with and I do not think I heard any particular argument by other senators with the concept and the structure of this legislation. I did hear some other comments which I think can be fairly rebutted. Senator Singh described the coalition's position as 'grandstanding' and 'showboating', but the truth is that this is legislation which is timely, important and relevant. I suspect that, if the government brings forward its own legislation, it will not look very different to what the opposition has already put forward. So why one could be described as showboating and the other described as comprehensive and genuine is a little hard to understand.

Senator Wright suggested in her remarks that there was a problem with the question of retrospectivity. She accepted a government estimate of what extra costs would be associated with a scheme which was retrospective if it ensured that people could claim again for compensation under this scheme on top of what they had already been able to obtain by virtue of ex gratia payments made previously by the Australian government. With great respect, it is fairly obvious that the scheme as administered under the guidelines or framework that the Attorney-General needs to formulate would provide that a person not be able to double dip in those circumstances. It is not necessary for the legislation to say that. It is necessary for the regulations to say it—I accept that—but nobody on this side of the house would seriously suggest that people should be able to claim twice for the same injury under a similar act of generosity.

It takes me somewhat by surprise to hear the Australian Greens bring forward concerns relating to the cost of a scheme like this. Even if we were to pretend for a moment that the scheme would cost as much as has been suggested—and I think it clearly will not—when the Greens ask, 'How can this scheme be funded?' it is a somewhat strange question to hear on their lips. They are the party who have promised a high-speed rail system up and down the entire east coast of Australia, have promised to index Public Service pensions by the same indexation method used for old age pensioners and have promised a light rail system around the whole of Canberra. Those three promises alone would set the Australian taxpayer back at least $10 billion. So why we find the Greens quibbling over maybe $5 million to $10 million in the out years is very hard to understand. If the Greens were consistent about their concern about sourcing funds for important initiatives, I would be more prepared to take them seriously, but they appear only to be looking gift horses in the mouth when they come from other parts of the chamber.

It is important that, as a parliament, we indicate the greatest of solidarity with those people who are victims of international terrorism. They are not just any victim of crime. Although it is obviously odious to make comparisons between the effect of crimes on people, these are not, in a sense, ordinary victims of crime. They are victims of a crime which is a great scourge around the world and a form of crime which has, unfortunately, affected Australians. Although not particularly within Australia's borders it certainly has affected Australians. It is very important that the Australian community indicates that it will help and support those people who are victims of those crimes because these people, in a sense, are representative of a society which terrorists target because of the nature of that society. Terrorists, particularly the Islamist terrorists that have been the source of terrorist acts against Australians in Bali and elsewhere, target Westerners—Australians—because of the kind of society that we are. They regard our society as being decadent and godless and a society that needs to be punished for being the kind of society that it is. So those who are victims of that kind of criminal act are victims, in a sense, as representatives of Australian society generally. It is important that we ensure that people who find themselves in that unfortunate position have every support to rebuild their lives, particularly where they have suffered serious injury as a result of an international terrorist act.

It is not possible to be dogmatic about how much the scheme will cost in any given year, because the scheme obviously is activated by international terrorism and, sadly, such acts are not easy to predict. In some years there may be very few acts; hopefully, it will not be the case that in other years there will be more, but we cannot discount that possibility.

I commend this legislation to the Senate. I ask members to put aside their feelings that somehow this legislation steals a march on other things that others may have been planning to do. If the legislation is conceptually worthwhile, if it does something that we all agree needs to be done, which is to compensate innocent victims of outrageous acts perpetrated for ideological or sectarian reasons—if we agree that all of that needs to happen—then we ought not to hesitate to take the step presented to the Senate today to support legislation that will make that happen. If we are concerned about imperfections, we should bring forward amendments to deal with those imperfections. If we are concerned about the politics of it, I suggest that that is not a good reason not to proceed with the legislation at this time. I, for one, believe that it has been far too long since the first such terrorist acts affected the lives of Australians and that we need to move to do something about that. This legislation does something about that and it deserves the support of every member of this place.

10:08 am

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to this debate on Senator Brandis's private senator's bill, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. Until the last few minutes I had intended to continue in the same vein as Senator Humphries because much of what he was saying is the absolute imperative we have as a government and as a legislature: to ensure that Australians travelling overseas who are the victims of a terrorism act can be guaranteed that they are going to be cared for by their government, regardless of its political persuasion.

Senator Wright made a very important point when she said that this is an important policy issue that has the support of all members of parliament. It is not something we should be playing politics with. Therefore, it is pretty frustrating that we have had this bill brought forward today for debate when last year, on 24 March, Mr McClelland, the Attorney-General at the time, introduced a much more compre­hensive bill and no-one was playing politics about that at the time. That bill was developed in consultation and with lots of negotiation with the opposition, with Mr Abbott's office, with the shadow Attorney-General and with those people who were very concerned after the introduction of Mr Abbott's bill in 2009. It was tabled and nothing further was done with it and then it was tabled again in 2010, that time with an explanatory memorandum so people could understand the intent. From that point on there have been very significant negotiations to try to clarify issues and to seek important advice not just from the Attorney-General but from the people Senator Humphries mentioned today—the people who are part of this and are mentioned in Senator Brandis's bill. In the outline to the bill Senator Brandis says:

In administering the framework, the Attorney-General must regularly consult with representatives of victims and their families, community or welfare organisations, health professionals, international humanitarian agencies and any other relevant bodies.

And in his contribution this morning Senator Brandis pointed to the victims-of-crimes legislation in our state and territory jurisdictions as being the model on which his bill has been developed. But there is a problem here. The problem we have is that this Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012 is an isolated bill, standing within the framework of the Attorney-General and giving a lot of responsibility to the minister of the day in determining the framework, the eligibility criteria, the payment system, the administration and the development of guidelines, which are not here yet and no-one can guess what they are. So this bill sits outside other pieces of work that the government is involved in.

Senator Humphries was, I think, part of a recent Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into the treatment of Australians kidnapped overseas and the way in which they can be supported. Out of the experiences we have had of Australians kidnapped overseas there have been very serious, comprehensive and wise processes and guidelines put in place through our consular agencies to strengthen the capacity of our consular assistance to help victims and their families. And the model that came out of the investigation of the Brennan case has actually brought forward for the government's consideration, with the support of the opposition, a range of strategies and assistance measures that are all being rolled out and put in place now. Those measures are also consistent with the social security bill which is currently in the House of Representatives.

At the time of the introduction of the bill by Mr Abbott in the House of Representatives, the government was beginning the discussion around the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Again, there are parallels with the complementary considerations to be brought into play in the way in which victims of overseas terrorist acts and their families will be treated when they are repatriated to Australia and the way in which their families are going to be supported through the trauma that is part of dealing with such awful incidents. So that is another part of the whole-of-government approach that we are trying to take to these issues. Again, Senator Brandis makes no mention of this. I have to say that his bill is disturbingly light on details and it does leave many crucial and critical questions unanswered.

We do not want to play politics with this issue; it is far too important. What we want to do is ensure that the way in which we provide support and the mechanism of support for Australian citizens who are victims of overseas terrorist acts are consistent with the ways the international community is trying to deal with them, because there has been an internationalis­ation of terrorism and we are part of the international community that is trying to deal with it. Through the lessons that we are learning and the way in which we are trying to craft a support package and a support network for people who are in this extraordinary situation, we are trying to be consistent with what is happening in other countries.

I would like to go to that for a moment, if I may, because you know, Madam Acting Deputy President, how interested I am in the way in which victims of terrorist acts are supported in Northern Ireland. That is a very good model for the way in which we are trying to prepare our own support. There are international best practice models: Israel, the United States and Northern Ireland. Israel pays compensation to victims of terrorist acts and it is financed through a national insurance scheme. This may well be part of one of the considerations in the framework of our national disability insurance scheme. We have yet to come to that kind of conclusion, but it does go to the issue of policy coherence.

Northern Ireland has a criminal injuries tariff compensation scheme, which was established in 2009, and that applies to all incidents occurring on or after 1 April 2009. That is dealing with the issue of retrospectivity and it is an issue that we too need to think about in Australia. To qualify for a payment in Northern Ireland, the person must be a victim of a crime of violence, and that can include arson or an act of poisoning. We do not even have a definition of a terrorist act in Senator Brandis's bill. We do not have that defined clearly enough, but in Northern Ireland they have actually said it goes beyond bombing and it goes beyond kidnapping. It can go to arson, and many fires have been set in Northern Ireland that have resulted in terrible tragedies. Poisoning is another interesting conversation we could be having about terrorism. Those people who are victims of some crime of violence are covered by the scheme. They need to be physically and/or mentally injured as a result and to have been in Northern Ireland at the time that the injury was sustained. That again is a very different model to the one we are discussing, because we are talking about Australian citizens in international circumstances where we do not have sovereignty. So we have to make sure that we are consistent with the international models and also that we are able to do the very best we can for Australian citizens in that situation. In Northern Ireland the compensation can include a prescribed lump sum payment for personal injury based on the scheme's schedule of mains amounts, and that aligns with workers compensation schemes here in Australia. Values are put on the level of physical injury that may have occurred.

Such is the complexity of putting together a proposition so as to assist victims of overseas terrorist activities. That is why we as a government have not presented this argument and this package of support through an Attorney-General's bill but rather as an amendment to the Social Security Act. That is the way in which we want to consider supporting victims and their families through something that will be horrific, lifelong, terrifying and an enduring, debilitating experience for them. How long people can access assistance is a very significant issue for us to consider and it is being considered in the framework of the government's bill. I wondered whether Senator Humphries was aware that the bill had been introduced in the House of Representatives because he did seem to think that no matter who was putting this issue forward it was worthy of consideration.

I do not want to play the politics of this because the situation is so important. The government's bill, introduced in March 2011, has been the subject of significant negotia­tion around the detail. It is quite specific and very comprehensive. The explanatory memorandum is very comprehensive. The Bills Digest, which is available from the Parliamentary Library, is quite detailed and raises some issues too. Concerns raised by the community and our colleagues in the parliament are being taken into account by the Attorney-General and the Minister for Human Services. It is very difficult to stand here and say, 'Well, we are not going to support this bill.' Some would like to present it to the Australian community as meaning that the government was not going to be supporting victims of overseas terrorism. That would be an awful message because it is simply untrue.

We are acutely aware that the system is a little ad hoc, discretionary and challenging. The system needs to take into account the higher level of alertness that we have to terrorist activities around the world, the ways in which they may happen and where they may happen. Australians are avid travellers with the opportunity and the incentive to get out and see the world. Australian citizens caught up in terrorist activity may well be in countries where we do not have strong international support or with which we do not have bilateral relations. We are not thinking only of people who are killed in overseas terrorist incidents. In Bali in 2002, for example, there were 182 Australians injured, as well as the 88 who lost their lives. So this is not just a scheme that requires consideration of repatriation of the bodies of loved ones; it is also a scheme that needs to take into account the maiming and injury of Australian citizens and the way in which we are going to care for them, sometimes lifelong.

In Bali, 182 were injured and 88 were killed. For September 11, we do not actually have a clear figure of how many Australians were injured, but of course we do know that we had 10 Australians killed. In 2003, we had someone injured in an incident in Riyadh. We also had someone injured in Istanbul. In Saudi Arabia, we had an Australian national killed. In Bali, in 2005, there were 17 Australians injured and four more killed. In London, we had 10 Australian nationals injured and one killed. In Egypt, two more were injured and in Mumbai, India, in 2008, we had four. So you can see that around the world, as we see an increase in terrorist activity, the way in which we have to deal with victims of these kinds of incidents is actually going to become more complex. That is why as a government we are saying, 'Let's take a more holistic approach. Let's find the way through.'

If you go to the detail of Senator Brandis's bill, it is quite clear. It looks at a compensation level of up to $75,000. That is consistent with the government's position. Senator Brandis's bill does not actually make the point about whether they are primary or secondary victims, which the government's bill does. The government's bill acknow­ledges that there are secondary victims. They may be the families that are having to deal with a family member who has been severely injured or, of course, who has lost their life. So the idea that we can simplistically think about what is a very complex, distressing tragedy of Australians killed or injured overseas as a result of terrorism really does not do justice to those people who are in that unfortunate situation and it certainly does not do justice to Australians in giving them confidence when they travelling overseas.

Let us think very clearly about what is going to happen. The bill does not specify the proposed framework that applies to particular events. Neither does it specifically state whether or not the issue of retrospect­ivity is being considered. Previously, former minister Ellison, commenting on that 2009 bill, said that no, retrospectivity was not being considered because there had been significant compensation to the Bail bombing victims at the time. He made a general statement—not in the parliament but in commentary—about that. That is not clear in what Senator Brandis is proposing today. Senator Humphries also said that we would not expect that people would be duplicating the financial assistance already paid to Australian victims. Senator Brandis's bill does not go to the issue of travel insurance or where that might fit in the scheme of things. It certainly does not go to workers compensation, income insurance or those kinds of arrangements that people put in place now when they are travelling. So it is pretty short-sighted and pretty thin on the detail.

We know that terrorism is a type of war in which the enemy—the terrorist organis­ation—selects random victims as its target, and we, as global travellers, are significant targets. As Senator Brandis said in his introductory comments today, we are the enemy. People abhor our lifestyle. They believe that we are really undermining civilisation as they know it and they want to target us. So we need to be sure that what we put in place for Australians travelling overseas is consistent and that there is policy coherence across all of the government's work. That is critically important. We want to make sure that whoever is caught as a victim of terrorism in the future is provided support in the long term.

We are going to be working very closely to bring on the social security amendment bill; the Attorney-General is working to do that very soon. Can I say in closing that Senator Wright is right: there are issues that still need to be considered, and we would certainly be supporting the Greens amendment to refer this bill to a Senate committee for inquiry.

10:27 am

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, and I want to acknowledge the contribution of senators from both sides of the Senate and the crossbenches who recognise the importance of this issue and the responsibility we as legislators have to the people of Australia. The bill proposes the establishment of a framework to facilitate financial assistance for Australians killed or injured—or their next of kin—as a result of international terrorist acts. The explanatory memorandum goes through a number of the details of the bill in terms of the quantum of the funds, the $75,000 which is in line with state and territory victims-of-crime regimes as well as the sorts of people who are stakeholders that would be engaged in both the establishment and ongoing management of the scheme.

The question, though, that the public may well ask is: why? Why should the government put in place a scheme to financially support Australians who have been targeted by terrorism overseas? As mentioned about the state and territory victims-of-crime legislation, there is a strong precedent in this nation of caring for individuals who have been affected by incidents that are no fault of their own. Victims-of-crime legislation is one example. Compulsory third-party insurance is another example whereby we put in place mechanisms to make sure that people who are injured have the opportunity to have care provided for them. A parallel process, which is in discussion at the moment, is the National Disability Insurance Scheme, where we recognise the ongoing burden and crises that many family face due to circumstances imposed upon them that are beyond their control. It is also worth recognising that opportunities for individuals to take measures to protect themselves against such things as terrorism have been reduced since 9-11. The insurance industry, for example, now routinely places exclusions for terrorist acts on all kinds of insurance, whether it be home and contents insurance, commercial insurance or, particularly, travel insurance. That means that, even if people wish to insure against such things to make sure they can provide for themselves, insurance companies include exclusions which prevent that. The government has taken some steps in terms of commercial insurance onshore to give business some confidence, but that does not extend to what we are talking about here with people overseas. There are precedents in countries such as Israel, the UKNorthern Ireland in particular—and the United States. Those jurisdictions have well-established systems of compensating people who have been the victims of terrorism, so there is strong precedent. It is interesting to note that all of those precedents are in countries that place a high value on the individual. That is one of the reasons we need to look at this issue, because it is a matter of principle that we support people.

Why are Australians being targeted overseas? I use the word 'targeted' quite deliberately, because terrorist acts are not purely random. The incidents are occurring, by and large, in locations which suggest targeting of liberal Western democracies, whether it be in the UK, the United States or places where people such as Australians go. We are all very familiar with the Bali bombings, where Australians were targeted, the London bombings and 9-11. DFAT has quite clearly identified in their paper Transnational terrorism: the threat to Australia that Australia is a terrorist target both as a Western nation and also in its own right. The paper explains that the transnational extreme Muslim terrorists see that:

Weakening the influence of the West would advance their political goals by helping undermine those Muslims they view as corrupt and open to Western influence. We are seen as standing in the way of their goal to transform the Muslim world into a Taliban-style society. According to their simplistic worldview, we are part of the Christian West which, to them, is un-Islamic and therefore illegitimate.

The core values we hold and which are intrinsic to our success as a liberal democratic culture are anathema to these extremists. For them, our beliefs in democratic process, racial and gender equality, religious tolerance and equality of opportunity are mere human inventions at odds with God’s law. These values impede their political goals.

We have seen, recently, decisions taken, and endorsed by people like President Karzai, about the respective value of women compared to men and we have seen the oppression of minorities in countries such as Iran. This Senate has passed resolutions condemning the treatment of minorities in many countries. Different world views place different values on people. In Australia we value individuals, we value men and women equally and we uphold the principle of freedom. That makes us a target. That also means we should look out for those people who have been damaged or hurt in what various members in this place have described as a war against our world view and our way of life.

The coalition has long been a supporter of that principle. Going back to 2009, on 16 November, the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, tabled the Assisting the Victims of International Terrorism Bill. In 2010 Senator Brandis tabled the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill. On 21 February 2011, Mr Abbott again tabled a bill in the other place. This current bill is the latest in a succession of attempts by the coalition to uphold this principle.

The other reason we should be considering this bill is practice. At the moment, because our nation does value individuals, we have provided strong support to people who have been victims. As has been mentioned by various speakers in this debate, that support is somewhat fragmented, somewhat unpredictable and relies largely on a number of small grants and programs bringing together existing streams from departments such as Centrelink and on specific ex gratia payments, which can vary quite significantly. So for the interests of consistency it is appropriate that this Senate and this parliament look to provide a framework which provides some certainty as to the payments that would be made.

I support the comments made that this is not just a one-off for a short-term issue. Whether we are talking about Australians who are injured as uniformed soldiers in a war or whether we are talking about Australians who are injured through acts of terrorism, the actual act and the immediate aftermath, which so often creates a lot of public goodwill and interest, can be a life-changing, long-term devastating incident for those families. So, as a nation, we need to consider not only how we respond to the short term and the immediate but how we respond to those people and support them through a very long journey of recovery. I believe that is an area we will need to continue to discuss and debate in this place so that we can have a viable, affordable method of supporting those fellow Australians who, through no fault of their own, now face a very difficult life because of injuries that have been received, whether in the service of this nation or through being innocent Australians abroad who have been caught up, whether in London, the United States or wherever. We had artists in New York looking to exhibit their works, we had tourists and people working in London and we had people holidaying in Bali. These are all things that we would expect any person to have the right to go and do. When not only are there people killed—with that impact on their family—but there are a large number of people injured, that is an ongoing issue. We, as a nation, need to have a system in place to care for them.

Whether because of the precedent, because of the principal or because of the problems with current practice, we do need a better framework. It has been a long-held principle of the coalition—from November 2009 to 2010 to 2011 to now—to try and bring before this parliament legislation to get a better framework, and for that reason I support the bill.

10:38 am

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me begin my contribution to this debate by joining all those other senators in this second reading debate who have acknowledged the threat of terrorism to Australian citizens at home and abroad.

This is, in my view, a most worthy matter for the consideration of this Senate because we do face the very stark reality that Australians have been deliberately targeted by terrorist groups overseas. The global reach, ambition and unpredictable nature of international terrorist groups have made Australians travelling overseas vulnerable in all corners of the globe. We know that Australians are not immune from terrorist attacks overseas.

I am going to do something that is very unusual, Madam Acting Deputy President, but there appears to be a problem with the clock here. I think it would be a terrible thing for the Senate if my speech were stuck on nine minutes and 52 seconds for the remainder of this sitting day! I do not know how Hansard is going to record that, but nevertheless we move on.

I was making the critically important point that experience does show us that Australians are not immune from terrorist attacks overseas. Since 11 September 2001 more than 200 Australians have been injured and more than 100 killed in overseas terrorist incidents. This includes the 88 Australians who lost their lives in Bali in 2002. Terrorism knows no boundaries. Australians have been affected by terrorist attacks in New York, London, Jakarta, Mumbai and Istanbul.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2003 defines a terrorist act as an action or threat of action where the action causes certain defined forms of harm or interference, and:

… the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause; …

Past Australian governments, both Labor and coalition, have assisted Australian victims of terrorist incidents overseas on a case-by-case basis, providing them with medical and evacuation support, consular assistance and assistance with funeral costs and other expenses on an ex gratia payment basis. The Australian government has also provided assistance to Australians affected by terrorist attacks overseas through a range of other mechanisms, such as healthcare assistance schemes and the Australian government disaster recovery payments. These schemes have provided healthcare assistance not only to Australians adversely affected by offshore terrorist attacks but also to those who have been affected by other events, such as natural disasters.

I think that in a debate like this it is important to recognise that to date there has been no comprehensive scheme that covers Australian victims of terrorism occurring overseas. I also recognise the importance of ensuring that assistance and support provided to Australians affected by terrorism overseas is appropriate and is adequate.

The parliament faces a choice now between, effectively, two approaches to deal with the victims of overseas terrorism. In my view, both are well motivated, both are well intentioned and both address inadequacies in the way we have assisted Australians affected by overseas acts of terrorism in the past. So I know that on all sides of the Australian parliament there is recognition that more comprehensive, more specific and better measures are required to ensure that the vital assistance that is required is extended to Australians that fall victim to terrorist attack outside our borders.

In the government's case, it has introduced the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. In the case of the opposition, Senator Brandis on behalf of the opposition has introduced this bill, a private senator's bill, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. The government bill, currently in the House of Representatives, provides for financial assistance of up to $75,000 for those injured or harmed or the next of kin of those killed by an act of terrorism overseas. The new scheme proposed by the government does not apply to victims of past incidents because, obviously, previous governments have already made determinations about the assistance and support offered for those victims of earlier terrorist incidents overseas and there is, of course, the issue that might arise of retrospective payments effectively duplicating what might already have done.

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The regulations are to fix that.

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A very good interjection, as sometimes there is from Senator Xenophon. He talks about the possibility that subordinate legislation might deal with this matter, and of course that is true. I hope that Senator Xenophon would agree with me that the best way forward here is for the government, the opposition, minor parties and Independents in the parliament to work collaboratively on this issue. I hope Senator Xenophon would agree with this.

Of course the government will support its own bill, but I would argue that there should be collaboration across the chamber, where I believe there is a high degree of unanimity—total unanimity—about the importance of dealing with this matter and members and senators are of one mind about the high priority this is. There is every opportunity that a collaborative approach will ensure that the parliament and, of course, more importantly the victims of terrorism will achieve the best outcome. I note that Senator Wright, on behalf of the Australian Greens, has proposed that this bill be referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 8 May 2012. I do think that such an approach might be a very useful step in achieving that best outcome that I have spoken about.

So I do acknowledge the support and concern around the chamber, across all parties, for our fellow Australians who have fallen victim to terrorist attacks overseas and the importance of us ensuring that we have in place the best possible legislative framework to support victims of terrorist attacks overseas into the future. It is not surprising that the government considers that the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011 is the best way of ensuring that victims of terrorism and their families are provided with the support that they need from the federal government, but I acknowledge again the fact that all parliamentarians are well motivated in this regard.

The threat to Australian citizens from terrorism overseas is real. The need for this parliament and the Australian government to deal with this issue is also real. I have welcomed the opportunity of speaking in this important second reading debate, and I commend to the Senate the approach that I have outlined as a sensible way of moving forward to achieving the shared outcomes that have been spoken about by all senators participating in this debate.

10:53 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

It is often a pleasure to follow Senator Faulkner in debates in this place and it is no less so on this occasion. As Senator Faulkner said in his concluding remarks, the threat of terrorism against Australians is real and the need to deal appropriately with all aspects of that threat is equally real. The legislation before us, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, seeks to deal with one aspect of the issues related to terrorism against Australians—just one aspect, but one very important aspect, and that is the support, assistance and recognition that is provided to Australian victims of terrorism in an international context.

As many of the contributors to this debate have highlighted, over the last decade in particular we have seen, and been reminded all too often of, how real that threat to Australians actually is. We have seen some 300 Australians suffer, as we know, as a result of terrorist incidents. We have lost the lives of Australians in incidents such as, of course, in the terrible attacks of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Centre; in Bali, on two separate occasions; in London and in Jakarta. Senator Stephens in her contribution listed many other parts of the world in which Australians have been injured and have suffered because of acts of international terrorism. Where Australians have died, overwhelmingly those attacks have been because of and targeted at the way of life that we in Australia have. Those Australians and others of Western nations have been targeted because fundamentalists want to wage a war against our way of life—the democratic freedoms that Australians and our allies in Western countries and others around the world espouse; those democratic principles and principles of freedom that we believe are so very important.

I am pleased that, in general, there is agreement throughout the chamber on the importance of what this bill seeks to do. This bill seeks essentially to provide assistance and support to Australian victims of terrorism analogous to the type of support provided to victims of crime in the Australian community. To put it in simple terms, if an Australian suffers hurt, injury or death as a result of a criminally related incident within Australia, there are schemes at the state level that provide a modest sum to the victim or the family of the victim in recognition of the pain they have gone through. In a sense it is a sign that the community wants to recognise the pain that they have gone through and to help them through those difficult circumstances. This legislation simply seeks to ensure that a similar scheme is in place for Australians who face and suffer similar pain offshore as a result of the types of terrorist incidents that I have mentioned. So I think this is a very important step forward.

The legislation puts in place provisions that ensure it is comparable to the state schemes I have highlighted. Payments are capped at $75,000, a modest sum—because this is not about compensation in a legal sense as it may be applied through the courts; this is about recognition and assistance—but a sum that, nonetheless, will be very helpful to people as they recover from injuries or from the loss of a loved one.

Senator Faulkner, Senator Stephens and others have highlighted that there is a not-dissimilar government proposal before the parliament: the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. I welcome that piece of legislation. I look forward to seeing the parliament deal with this issue, whether through Senator Brandis's legislation or the government's legislation, in a sensible way that actually gets an outcome. I think that is an important thing for us to aspire to. It is for that reason that the coalition is happy to cooperate with and accept the Greens' amendment that there be a Senate inquiry into this bill, because we accept that there is an appropriate place for looking at the operation of the bill, to make sure that all the issues are considered. But, hopefully, as a result of that, we will then see the swift passage of at least one of these bills. For a long period of time now, people have been talking about and seeking to achieve the type of action, the type of assistance, that this legislation will deliver. I do hope that, as a result of that inquiry, we will see either the relevant amendments to satisfy the concerns of all contributors to this debate that will see this bill pass or the swift passage of the government's bill. But let us see some action. Let us see an outcome on this. Let us not see any more delays on this matter.

Responding to terrorism is not just related to the types of support and assistance that governments provide to victims. The support provided to victims has been well canvassed in this debate, including the types of support this bill seeks to apply and the practical assistance that governments of both persuasions have provided and, I have no doubt, will continue to provide to Australians who find themselves in trouble overseas. But the response to terrorism also involves trying to prevent it in the future and trying to hunt down, where necessary, the sources of the terrorism.

I compliment the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, for the way in which he addressed some of those issues in question time yesterday. Senator Bob Carr was asked about our role in Afghanistan. Australia entered Afghanistan under United Nations mandate to try to respond in particular to the attacks of September 11, to respond to the Taliban's involvement in and support of al-Qaeda and to try to ensure that we do not again see a state sanctioning, assisting or supporting the type of terrorist incident that occurred on September 11, 2001.

I can understand why, in the decade that has passed, many people now ask what we are still doing in Afghanistan and why we are there. Of course, 32 fine, young Australian servicemen have paid the ultimate price for our engagement in Afghanistan, and we have honoured and recognised each of those sacrifices in this place, as we should, and we should never forget what they have given. However, as Senator Bob Carr indicated yesterday, we are there for good reason. We are there because we sought to—and we seek to—deny the likes of al-Qaeda safe haven, a place from which to base their operations. In a country like Afghanistan, we also seek to leave the country in a better place, to ensure that, hopefully, the people of Afghanistan enjoy a better lifestyle under the government in the circumstances in which we leave the country than they did before the forces of Australia and other countries took the action that has been taken.

I compliment Senator Carr because I thought the fact that he highlighted at least one of the positive achievements that have occurred in Afghanistan, in response to questions on the matter yesterday, was very important. We do not hear those positive indicators often enough in this debate. For those who may have missed it, I again highlight the educational outcomes that he indicated are occurring. In 2001, there were just one million young Afghanis enrolled in their school system, virtually none of them young women. Today, there are over seven million young Afghanis receiving an education, with around 2.5 million young women. That is a fine accomplishment. It is through a sound education system for those millions of additional young Afghanis that we will see an Afghanistan that in the future is better able to have a successful economy, to engage sensibly in world affairs and to enjoy the types of advancements and opportunities that we hope to see in place for all Australians around the world.

In this place, and particularly throughout the Australian community, we need to do more and to say more to highlight the accomplishments that have occurred in Afghanistan. It is all too often too easy to dwell on the negatives and on the tragedies. Yes, there have been tragedies—there was a terrible tragedy this week—and we should acknowledge those and should mourn those deaths and those occasions where things have gone wrong; but, equally, we should highlight the accomplishments and the fact that the 32 young Australian troops, and the many more from other countries, who have fought and died in Afghanistan have not done so in vain and have done so to protect Australians and others from international acts of terrorism and, in doing so, have provided a better life for millions of Afghanis.

Because I may not have a chance to do so elsewhere in this debate, I highlight another instance of inhumane activity that is occurring in the world at present and some action that will take place today. Today, during question time, senators will be asked to sign a letter to the ambassadors of Russia and China that will circulate around the chamber. This letter relates to what is happening in Syria—another instance of oppression happening in the world at present and another instance about which many have grave concerns for the human rights violations occurring and for the acts occurring that replicate, in some ways, the types of terrorist incidents that we have talked about on occasions in this debate. Today is the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the uprising against the Syrian government. It is estimated that in this past year between 6,500 and 7,500 innocent civilians have been killed in the conflict in Syria. Tens of thousands have been injured or arrested, and around 18,000 people are thought to be facing arbitrary detention without the right to a fair trial. The letter that will be circulated in this chamber by Senator Moore and me and in the other place by Mr Ruddock and Mr Laurie Ferguson highlights:

The grim catalogue of torture and other ill treatment that has emerged from Syria's detention centres in a year of unrest against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

The letter calls on the United Nations Security Council to refer President al-Assad to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, to freeze the assets of the president and others involved in the regime in Syria and to impose an arms embargo. These are actions that the UN Security Council should have undertaken but sadly has not because member states, particularly Russia and China—to whom this letter is directed—have resisted this type of action through the UN Security Council. It calls on the ambassadors of Russia and China to urge their countries to use their influence over Syria and their influence at the UN Security Council to end this type of abuse. I hope that in some small way today's gesture by parliamentarians of all stripes will apply a little extra pressure for some outcome in that regard and, in doing so, will ultimately lead to a better outcome for those who are victims of terrible acts in Syria.

I return to the legislation before us, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. This legislation has a great capacity, and is an opportunity, to provide some assistance to Australian victims of terrorism. In closing, I urge the Senate to ensure that, after the inquiry into this legislation is complete, this matter is dealt with and dealt with swiftly. Whether through this bill or the government's bill, we should at least see put in place by the federal government a positive outcome and the support that is deserved and warranted by Australian victims of terrorism. I commend the bill to the Senate.

11:10 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will not take much of the Senate's time because much of what I wanted to say has been said by my colleagues on both sides of the debate. It is clear that there is an unambiguous need to give greater support to victims of terrorism. It is clear that the current mechanisms in force are inadequate. It is clear that having ex gratia payments is not an adequate way of dealing with such matters. Current mechanisms are too ad hoc and not part of an overall scheme which provides consistency and reliability.

The issue is how we best advance this. I agree with Senator Faulkner that we need to have a collaborative approach. However, I believe that this bill, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, does have merit. It is not fair to characterise this bill as a piece of grandstanding, as some have. It is important that this bill be debated. It is an issue that needs to be sorted out. This bill has a number of features that are superior to the government's bill, particularly in relation to retrospectivity. Senator Faulkner made a very good point about that, suggesting, as I believe he did, that it could lead to an anomalous outcome in the event that a victim of terrorism has already received a measure of compensation. That could easily be fixed by the regulatory framework, the subordinate legislation proposed and anticipated in this legislation.

It is important that we consider the cost of this scheme. My South Australian colleague Senator Wright indicated some concern about the costs involved and the cost implications. This is not a criticism of Senator Wright, but an upside estimate of the cost of paying former victims of terrorism—to ensure that this bill is retrospective—is of the order of $20 million. If as a nation we can find $16 billion for 100 Joint Strike Fighters and $10 billion for a clean energy fund then I think we can find $20-odd million to compensate victims of terrorist acts. Senator Humphries was correct when he said we do not know how much this scheme will cost because of the very nature of the scheme. I hope that this scheme does not cost anything in the sense that I hope Australians are not subjected to acts of terrorism and people are not injured or killed by such acts, with the devastation and the heartache they cause. We do not know how much this scheme will cost, and I hope it is not much at all—if so, the world is a safer place.

We need to get on with this. Senator Faulkner's comments about a collaborative approach are very worthwhile. We should get the interested parties together in a room and thrash this out, because if we are seen by the Australian people to be bickering about the fundamental issue of some measure of justice for victims of terrorism then that reflects badly on all of us. I think there is enough goodwill in this place and in the other place to sort this out.

I finish by referring to a person I have enormous regard for and with whom I have discussed this issue on previous occasions. I hope to be in a position to catch up with him in the not-too-distant future. The person is Brian Deegan, a former South Australian magistrate. I regard him as a friend and I believe he is an incredibly decent human being with enormous integrity. Brian lost his beloved son Joshua in the Bali bombings, on 12 October 2002. Joshua was on a postseason Indonesian holiday with his teammates from the Sturt Football Club, which had just won the South Australian National Football League premiership. Brian has written a book titled Remembering Josh: Bali, a father's story. It is a very powerful testimony to his experiences and the trauma that he and so many others went through. It took an enormous act of courage for him to do that and to take the stance he took subsequent to that.

But that is not the issue. The issue is that Brian Deegan, as a former magistrate and a practising lawyer, raised the importance of there being a scheme in place to assist victims of terrorist attacks. This bill is a significant step forward in relation to that, as is the government's bill. But for goodness sake, let us all get together, sort this out in a collaborative approach and fix this up once and for all—sooner rather than later. I think Australians demand that of us.

11:15 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

It is good to participate in a debate where everybody agrees with the sentiments of the bill before the parliament. I am certainly one who will be supporting this bill, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, and I encourage all other senators to do the same. As I have listened to the debate this morning, I have heard many people relate particularly moving experiences. I thank Senator Xenophon for the brief but very important contribution he just made and I have to say I agree with most of what Senator Xenophon said.

It is clear that the coalition, the Labor Party, the Greens and the crossbenchers think that there is an important point in proceeding with legislation that provides for compensation. As I listened to the debate, I kept asking myself: if everybody agrees, why is it that the bill is not going to be passed because the Labor Party and the Greens will not be supporting it? I say to the Labor Party and the Greens: please, if you have a better bill, bring it forward, let us debate it, let us look at it and, as appropriate, let us move amendments. But let us get on and do something about it. If this bill is passed today, as I hope it will be, then we will be starting the process.

From what other speakers have said—and I was unaware of this until I heard the debate today—this process has been going on for in excess of two years now. It seems to me that in that time we have passed a series of 18 bills that will impose the world's biggest carbon tax on Australians. That very complex series of 18 pieces of legislation was guillotined through this parliament. We are all absolutely confident that there will be elements of those 18 pieces of legislation that will be challenged in the court—in fact we hear on the news today that the whole carbon tax parcel of legislation is going to be challenged because of the alleged unconstitutionality of it.

The point I am making is that the government was able to draft, prepare and ram through both chambers of parliament 18 pieces of complex legislation in next to no time. I say 'next to no time' because we know Ms Gillard promised at the last election that there would be no carbon tax, so the Public Service, the draughtsmen, would have put that out of their mind. As is the wont of this government in relation to taxation matters, promises mean nothing. But the point I am making is that those 18 pieces of legislation were able to be prepared, drafted and rammed through parliament in a matter of months. Yet in respect of this piece of relatively simple legislation—everyone here has said it is not terribly complex and does not involve a great deal of money—for some reason which I do not understand the government seems to be procrastinating in bringing forward what Labor speakers have said is an excellent piece of legislation that will fix everything.

If that is the case, why isn't it before the chamber today? Why aren't we dealing with it? It is a very simple question and I hope that someone might be able to answer it. If someone were able to indicate to me that the Labor government is bringing forward a piece of legislation that has been properly consulted upon and has been discussed with the opposition and the crossbenchers in a nonpartisan way, even without seeing it I would feel fairly confident that I would be supporting that piece of legislation as well. But despite, or perhaps because of, the procrastination of this government on that front, we now have a bill to assist victims of overseas terrorism before the parliament today which can be voted upon and, hopefully, adopted. I am very pleased to support this bill so we actually do move forward.

As Senator Xenophon indicated, there seems to be concern on the government benches that retrospectivity may cost $20 million and we do not know what this is going to cost in the future. I agree absolutely with Senator Xenophon when he says that all of us would hope that this will cost absolutely nothing. That would mean that in the future there will be no victims of overseas terrorism. But, if there are, we as a compassionate nation and a wealthy nation should be making provision for those who are victims of that terrorism.

Senator Xenophon mentioned a figure of $20 million. When you consider that this government is borrowing $100 million each and every day, $20 million to spend retrospectively on victims of terrorism seems to be a mere drop in the ocean. To oppose or not vote for this bill on the basis that it might cost $20 million seems to me to be foolish and disingenuous in the extreme.

This bill proposes, as other speakers have said, to establish a scheme to compensate Australian victims of overseas terrorist attacks. It is proposed that the scheme be similar to those that have long operated in Australian states and territories. State victim of crime legislation was rightly implemented decades ago. There is nothing new, there are no surprises, in how this legislation operates in the states and how it is funded. It seems to me disingenuous that, if the states could do this in years gone by, this federal government cannot bring forward a bill that is universally accepted to deal with an issue which everybody in this chamber agrees upon. So I urge senators to support the bill.

If for some reason the Labor Party thinks that it has a better bill, bring it on. Let us have it before the chamber. Let us see if it does need amendment. Let us move and debate amendments. Let us look at costings that the Public Service may have been able to bring forward. But, please, let us get on with it. Do not wait another two years before this issue can be addressed by this federal parliament. If nothing else, hopefully this bill will have said to the government: 'Look, get on it; don't procrastinate. You have been able to do it with taxing bills. When you want to raise taxes, you get those things very quickly through the parliament.' We are dealing with some of the most complex pieces of legislation in the Senate this afternoon with the mining tax bills—more taxing bills that the Labor Party is very able to prepare, to draft, to fund and to get before this parliament in a relatively short period of time; yet this bill, which by comparison is simple and not complex, seems to have the Labor government stalling.

While I am speaking on this bill relating to victims of terrorism, can I just digress ever so slightly with the concurrence of the Senate to acknowledge the men and women of the Australian defence forces who do such a lot in the fight against terrorism. All Australians know that we are in the war in Afghanistan because it is a war against terrorism that we must win. We know it has the universal support of all Australians. The sorts of things that happened in New York on September 11, in Bali and elsewhere are abhorrent to any decent human being in this world. That is why in the case of Afghanistan we have gone to war to try and address terrorism and the root causes of terrorism and those people who would conduct terrorist activities and create death and mayhem and the victims which this bill is all about. It is the men and women of our defence forces who are the frontline in this war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Speaking as a Queenslander and an Australian as well—I do not want to be partisan about the states—I come from a place up in the north of Queensland at Townsville where we have Australia's largest Army base. Daily we see the very fine individuals who constitute Australia's Army and Air Force and irregularly the Navy as it calls into Townsville to pick up troops and to deliver goods to the Lavarack Army base in Townsville. Our troops—our soldiers—our sailors and our airmen are the best in the world. Their training is impeccable. It is rigorous. They know how to conduct their warlike operations but at the same time be careful, as you have to be these days, of civilians who are in the area of conflict. That is no easy task. Our men and women do a fantastic job. I think all Australians recognise that. The increasing numbers that turn out at military parades on Anzac Day, Kapyong Day and Armistice Day are a testament to the fact that all Australians are attending not only to commemorate the event but also to give support to the troops of today who always participate in those commemoration services. The troops do a mighty job.

You will excuse me for being a little parochial as a Queenslander, but we do have Australia's largest Army base at Lavarack. We have two of Australia's finest training areas in Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton and at High Range behind Townsville and also the jungle training up near Innisfail and the old Canungra training ground. I do not think it exists any more, but they do train around that area. We have Enoggera in Queensland, another very substantial Army base. We have one of the most significant Air Force bases in Amberley and again in Townsville at Garbutt, air bases with very long history. I am always proud to mention a fact not many people understand and that is that Australia's second largest east coast naval base is situated in Cairns in Far North Queensland. I would certainly hope that in the not-too-distant future, as Sydney Harbour gets more crowded and other activities intervene which make it less appropriate to have Australia's biggest naval base in the centre of Sydney, the naval base at Cairns will be expanded to accommodate more of the vessels that of necessity must leave Garden Island.

In this debate on victims of terrorism I acknowledge the great work that our defence forces do in defending us against terrorism by their activities overseas. I note an incident quite recently where, thanks to the good work of the security services and the police, a proposed terrorist attack on an Army base was thwarted. It shows, as other speakers have mentioned in this debate, how targeted Australians are and, I have to say, how targeted our Australian servicepeople are because of their excellence in combating terrorism wherever it occurs. I know, in those words of commendation and congratulations I offer to the men and women of our defence forces, there would not be a senator in this parliament who would disagree. I would like those troops to know that we as legislators and as parliamentarians acknowledge, respect and understand the great work that they do.

To get back to this bill: I think it is important that, if people are the victims of overseas terrorism, they should be compensated. If Australians are victims of criminal acts in Australia, they will invariably receive some compensation, some monetary benefit, from the state or territory government. It is not a lavish amount; it is not a sum of money that will enable people to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. But it is an important acknowledgement from our community of the abhorrent and completely unjustified pain and suffering of the victims.

This bill proposes a federal scheme that will be similar to the ones in place currently in the states and territories of Australia. The amount involved, as I was just saying, is not a huge amount—$75,000 is proposed. Nothing will overcome the loss, hurt or damage to body and soul that terrorism can cause to people, but it is a token that will help people get on with their lives and help the families of victims to get on with their lives. I think it is a bill that is long overdue and urge the Senate to support it.

11:33 am

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I agree with the sentiments just expressed by Senator Macdonald. I think this, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, is a very important bill. It is very timely and it does address a very real problem in terms of compensating and helping to look after people who are the innocent victims of terrorism overseas. I commend the authors of this bill, who have recognised the importance of this issue and proposed to assist victims of overseas terrorism. Regrettably, in this day and age terrorism is much more prevalent around the world than it ever has been. We now live in the world of the urban terrorist who can plant bombs in parked cars and in rubbish bins, as we saw in Sydney many years ago when a bomb was placed in a garbage bin outside a hotel. In London there were the bombings on the buses and on the underground trains. There have been bombings in Spain and, of course, bombings closer to home in South-East Asia—in Bali, where we all recall the devastation which occurred following the bombings in 2003.

As it happens, that is the closest I have ever been to a terrorist incident. I was in Indonesia with a parliamentary delegation a week before the Bali bombings and visited Surabaya and East Java, nearby where, we later heard, the Bali bombings were in fact put together. So bombing from terrorism is not an issue that is unlikely to occur. There are terrorists in all parts of the world and, sadly, bombings and indiscriminate terrorist actions are now a factor which has to be considered when travelling.

This bill proposes the establishment of a framework to facilitate financial assistance for Australians—or their next of kin—killed or injured as a result of international terrorist acts. These may occur in hotels, in bars, in shopping centres, in trains, in buses and even in aircraft, as we know from the Lockerbie bombings, from the sad crash of that 747 and from the gentleman who was apprehended at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport with a bomb strapped to his underpants on Christmas Day a few years ago. That would have brought down an aircraft full of people. Acts of terrorism are now very common, very widespread and we all have to factor in the possibility of being a victim of terrorism when we travel overseas.

It is proposed that the framework of this bill will be administered by the Attorney-General's Department and that it will provide eligibility criteria for claimants of financial assistance. The financial assistance provided must be available to those who suffer or have suffered injury requiring hospitalisation as a result of an international terrorist act. In the event that such an act causes the death of a person, the assistance will be available to the person's next of kin. The proposal is that Australian victims of overseas acts of terrorism would each receive up to $75,000. The scheme is modelled on state and territory laws and schemes which provide compensation to victims of serious crime. It is proposed that the payment would be on a sliding scale, with more serious injuries receiving a higher payout—which is only right and proper. I heard some mention earlier in this debate that $75,000 as a maximum was not a great deal of money for somebody who has suffered a severe head injury, but it is at least a start and it would be very helpful, for example, to the widow of a victim who died from terrorist bombing in that it would enable a family to meet its financial commitments during the period of the immediate aftermath of such an incident.

I understand that over the past decade about 300 Australians have been killed or injured in acts of terrorism around the world, which is about 30 people a year. That is quite a significant number in the sense that it is indicative of the fact that overseas travel is no longer without risk. I think that 20 or 30 years ago we would not have taken into consideration the risk of terrorist action, but it is something we certainly need to do now. Using the average of 30 victims a year, the maximum payment of $75,000 would cost an estimated $2.25 million per annum, which is not a lot of money in terms of the federal government's budget. Of course, these payments would be only intermittent.

I think this is a very important and timely piece of legislation which does address a real need, and the people who have put this legislation together should be congratulated on seeing this need and addressing it. Having said that, however, I think it is very important that when people travel overseas they take as much trouble as they can to protect themselves and to provide cover for themselves should they be the victims of a terrorist act. Many people would know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade these days has a Smartraveller scheme which enables a person who is travelling overseas to go to the DFAT website and enter their name and their itinerary so that if some incident occurs the department is at least aware that there may be Australians within the general area. That is a very important scheme and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should be congratulated for establishing that scheme. I think that the existence of the Smartraveller website should be more widely known.

Another very important thing that people travelling overseas should do is to take out comprehensive travel insurance, because, whether it is a terrorist attack or an injury from other causes, medical treatment in other countries is often very expensive, and that often comes as a great shock to Australians, especially to those who need more sophisticated treatment, such as a period of time in an intensive care unit. In Australia that would be free of charge under Medicare in a public hospital, if you chose to be treated in a public hospital. In other countries, however, the cost of intensive care treatment can be horrendously expensive. I think that the risk, however small it may seem, of requiring that kind of treatment should be reason enough for everybody to take out comprehensive travel insurance. When you do so, it is very important to read the small print on the policy to make sure that the policy does provide for air evacuation to Australia if needed after an accident, injury or terrorist act. The cost of air evacuation can be very expensive. If it is done by scheduled airline, the companies that provide medivacs—medical air evacuations—have to occupy six or eight seats in the plane, which inevitably costs a fair bit of money. There are doctors and nurses who have to travel with the victim and often they have several teams of such people if the distance back to Australia is long. Coming from Europe, for example, at some point along the route there would be a second team of doctors and nurses put on the plane to look after the individual. It is very important for people travelling overseas to always have comprehensive travel insurance and to always read the finer details of the policy to ensure that they are getting the coverage they imagine they are getting when they buy the policy. It is very important to buy a policy from a reputable service provider. You can buy one online from some of the big international travel agencies and companies or from a local travel agent whom you trust and respect.

I come back to the issue of international terrorism and particularly the assistance provided to the victims of overseas terrorism. As I said, terrorism is sadly now a fact of life in the modern world. We must always be aware of the danger of terrorism, particularly when going to Third World countries where there are political issues, to the Middle East, to Africa or to some parts of Asia. Some countries are much more risky to visit than others. Before travelling to such countries, it is important people go to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website and have a look at the travel warnings, which the department puts out on every country in the world to advise of the risk to individuals in travelling to those countries. There has been a need for this kind of compensation to be paid or to be available to the victims of overseas terrorism for some time. I am very pleased that this bill has been proposed. It fills an important gap and I commend this bill to the Senate.

11:46 am

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak in support of the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. Travellers, like soldiers, these days need to accept the risks. Neither soldiers nor travellers go overseas to be injured or to die, but these are risks that both soldiers and travellers must now accept as a potential reality. It is now on the notice paper, as it were, for our civilian population to think about preparation and to think about self-help in the event of a tragedy when travelling overseas. Initiatives of the sort that Senator Eggleston has just spoken about such as Smartraveller, travel insurance, self-help and good old commonsense when we are travelling overseas must be the very first steps.

This bill seeks to make appropriate and modest provision to Australians travelling overseas who are injured in a terrorist attack or, if they are killed, to their next of kin. It is very clear that the bill seeks to model itself upon the various states victim of crime legislation. Proposed section12(c) of the bill states:

In administering the framework, the Secretary is to ensure that:

…   …   …

(c)   procedures and practices established under … this Act and for the operation of the framework … are broadly commensurate with the procedures and practices established under State and Territory victims of crime compensation schemes.

After all, that is a very important part of the point. Were this domestic terrorism about which we are speaking, then people would be broadly compensated by states and territories victim of crime legislation. The only difference, and the tragic difference, is that we are talking in this bill about Australians travelling overseas who are targeted by ruthless terrorists because they are Australians, because of who they are and where they live. Terrorists do not necessarily care who else they get as collateral on the way through and they do not specifically care whether they get you or me, but they know that they will get some of us. In that respect, Australians travelling overseas have diminished control, if you like, as to whether they will suffer tragedy.

This bill seeks to be a modest and appropriate help in those cases. Senator Singh attempted to suggest, in referring to the introduction of a bill last year by former Attorney-General McClelland, that that bill was broadly consistent with this bill.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for the consideration of this matter has expired.

Debate adjourned.