Friday, 22 June 2012
Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011; Second Reading
I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill. I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
Terrorism is a crime that has a unique and dramatic impact on the lives of its victims.
It is a crime directed not at individuals, but at the state.
However, it is individuals who suffer.
Presently in every Australian state and territory victims of crime, including terrorism, are eligible for financial assistance under criminal injuries schemes.
However, there is no comprehensive scheme that covers Australian victims of terrorism that occurs overseas.
In the past decade Australians have been killed and injured in terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Bali, London, Jakarta and Mumbai.
Terrorism is an unpredictable and stateless phenomenon.
It can strike almost anybody, in any place and at any time.
It is a sad reality that Australians are sometimes targeted in overseas terrorist acts.
Other times, they are merely caught up in attacks launched indiscriminately at 'Westerners'.
In either case, these individuals fall victim to attacks with a political or ideological motive, rather than a personal one.
In this context, it is only fair that the burden of the attack be borne in part by the state, and not the individual victim.
It is important to acknowledge the collective responsibility of the Australian community to help individuals recover from overseas terrorist events.
The Australian government has assisted Australian victims of terrorism in the past, providing them with medical and evacuation support, consular assistance and assisting with funeral costs and other expenses, on an ex gratia basis.
The value of that assistance to date exceeds $12 million.
Accordingly, the government does not propose to apply the scheme to individuals who have already been supported.
There is, however, more that can be done to ease the suffering and provide support to Australian victims in the longer term.
It is in this context that the government today commends the bill to the Senate.
Like the private senator's bill currently before the Senate, the purpose of this bill is to provide financial support of up to $75,000 to Australians affected by terrorism while overseas.
The bill achieves this through the 'Australian Victim of Terrorism Overseas Payment.'
The payment will provide financial assistance of up to $75,000 for individuals injured in an overseas terrorist event and to the close family member or members of an individual killed as a direct result of a terrorism event overseas.
Eligibility under the scheme provided for by the bill requires the Prime Minister to declare an overseas terrorism event in the first instance.
Once an overseas terrorism event has been declared, set eligibility criteria will apply, primarily that an applicant is an Australian resident and did not contribute to the terrorism event.
The bill provides for the determination of principles, which will provide guidance on the factors that may be considered when determining a claim, including:
The scheme will also provide that victims who receive the payment will not have to repay Medicare, and will not adversely affect a person's entitlement to damages or compensation under any Commonwealth law.
This is also consistent with current victims of crime compensation schemes.
Payments under the scheme will also be exempt from income tax.
The bill recognises that the decision maker may require a longer period than the standard statutory period of 13 weeks to determine claims, particularly where there are large numbers of victims.
The ability to provide payments of up to $75,000 to victims of overseas terrorism acknowledges not only that injuries resulting from terrorism events can be very serious, but that they can have a lasting effect, requiring ongoing support and treatment.
On 22 March 2012, the Senate jointly referred the provisions of this bill and a private senator's bill to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.
The committee tabled its report, containing seven recommendations, on 10 May 2012.
The government supports six of the seven recommendations, and has revised the explanatory memorandum to address recommendations 2, 3 and 5.
The revised explanatory memorandum provides greater guidance about how the Prime Minister will determine whether a specific terrorist act should be covered by the scheme.
It also clarifies that the bill enables extension of the scheme to cover Commonwealth employees working overseas who do not meet the residency test.
Finally, it provides some clarification on how payments under the scheme will interact with other payments.
To implement recommendation 6, the government is exploring options for the establishment of a central contact point for Australians affected by terrorist acts.
The government does not support recommendation 5, which would double the maximum payment for primary victims.
That Australians should be injured or killed in a terrorist act is a horrible thought to contemplate.
But it has happened and—unfortunately—it could happen again.
Terrorism is a crime with many victims.
It devastates not just those directly impacted, but their families as well.
It is a crime designed to strike at the heart of all we hold dear in a free and democratic society.
But we are determined that terrorism will not affect how we go about our lives.
The government supports the rights of Australians to continue to explore the world, continue to discover new places and represent us abroad, secure in the knowledge that the Australian community, and its parliament, will continue to support them, their families and the Australian way of life.
I commend this bill.
The Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011, introduced by Senator Collins, is almost identical to a private senator's bill which I introduced last year dealing with the same topic and which had been initiated by the Leader of the Opposition Mr Tony Abbott. I do not propose to delay the Senate for very long, because what I have to say about the government's bill, which of course the opposition supports, I said when I addressed some remarks to the private senator's bill, which I will call the Abbott bill.
The opposition welcomes the fact that the government has decided to embrace Mr Abbott's idea to establish a scheme for payments to compensate Australian citizens who fall victim to overseas terrorism on similar lines to schemes that are operated by the various states and territories to compensate victims of crime. We should never forget that, far from being a country sequestered away from the trouble spots of the world in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia has been very close to the front line when it comes to the war against terrorism.
Australia has in fact lost more of its citizens to terrorist attack, as a result of the two Bali bombings, than almost any other nation. Only the United States, Spain and India have in the last decade lost more of their citizens to terrorist violence. More Australians, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President—some 98—were killed in the first Bali bombing than were killed in the terrorist attacks on the London underground.
So we in Australia should not be insouciant when it comes to the immediate threat posed to our citizens by terrorism, although, mercifully as a result of the skill, dedication and determination of our national security agencies, in particular ASIO, there has not been since the events of September 11, 2001 a terrorist strike on Australian soil. As I said, in Bali there was a horrific terror strike against Australian citizens in which almost 100 young lives were lost.
The purpose of this bill, which now attracts bipartisanship support, in consequence of the government embracing Mr Tony Abbott's very constructive, humane and positive idea, is to seek to compensate people or the families of people who fall victim to overseas terrorism, as I said earlier, along similar lines to the way victims of crime are compensated by various criminal compensation schemes.
There is nothing more I need to add. I congratulate the government on being sensible enough, after some initial hesitancy, to embrace Mr Tony Abbott's idea and I indicate that it will of course have the support of the opposition.
Terrorism is, sadly, no new phenomenon. A quick internet search suggests that, from the time of the assassins in the late 13th century, terror and barbarism were widely used in warfare and conflict. However, it was not until the French Revolution in the 1800s that the first uses of the words 'terrorists' and 'terrorism' were recorded. Since then those words have become firmly a part of our vernacular, able to evoke some of the most violent and devastating images, particularly for those of the most recent generations, X and Y, who have not yet known a major international war.
In November 2004 a report of the United Nations Secretary-General described 'terrorism' as: 'Any act intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.'
By 2004 acts of terrorism were increasing and have now become a feature of our world. The United States Embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1983. In 1995, 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1988 the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 killed 270 people over Lockerbie, in Scotland. In 1994 a Philippine airlines flight over Manila was bombed, as was the London underground in 2005.
It is five weeks from the Olympic Games. We are reminded that the greatest sport gathering in the world is not immune to terrorism. The 1972 Munich Games saw, as we would all recall, a terrorist group take 11 hostages, all of whom were executed. And, at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, two people were killed and over 100 injured by a terrorist pipe bomb. Terrorism is very common these days.
The New York World Trade Center was first bombed by terrorists in 1993, eight years before the world watched in horror as the devastation was repeated tenfold on September 11, 2001. Images that day of aircraft flying into buildings, petrified bystanders covered in ash and brave firefighters and police officers rushing to help are in many ways the very images that have come to symbolise modern-day terrorism. Since then terrorism has edged closer to our shores. Long Australians' favourite holiday destination overseas, horror came to the island of Bali in October 2002 when terrorists deliberately targeted a nightclub frequented by Westerners, especially Australians, and 202 people were killed, 88 of them Australian citizens. As it happens, I had been in that area only a week before, in Surabaya and Malang, East Java, where, as those of us there were subsequently informed, the bombers were actually making the bombs used in the Bali bombings. In an attack indisputably directed at Australians, our embassy in Jakarta was bombed in September 2004, killing nine people. As confidence was returning to our northern neighbour, terrorists struck Bali again, in 2005, and on that occasion claimed the lives of four people.
Australians love to travel, so many of our young people choose to take a gap year after completing high school and spend 12 months abroad—perhaps as an au pair in the UK or a ski instructor on the Canadian slopes or a counsellor at popular Camp America. Families too love to travel. In my home state of Western Australia there can be as many as nine direct air services to Bali a day. Singapore is a very popular destination as well, with up to seven flights a day from Perth, and the ski fields of New Zealand are close enough for a long weekend over there. But all of those destinations now have the shadow of a potential terrorist attack hanging over them as Australia has become a terrorist target largely perhaps because of our activities in recent Middle East wars in which certainly as a nation we have taken a stand against terrorism and those who purvey that kind of action around the world.
At its heart, the Social Security (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011, is about protecting our citizens abroad. Already each state and territory has legislation to protect those killed or injured as a result of domestic terrorism through existing victims-of-crime legislation. There is no need, therefore, to extend the scope of this proposed act for that purpose. The purpose of this bill is to establish a legal mechanism to provide financial assistance to those Australian citizens who have been directly impacted by terrorism abroad. Specifically, the bill would apply to Australians who are injured as a result of an overseas terrorist act and close family members of Australians who are killed or who die within two years of suffering injuries as a result of an overseas terrorism act. The new payment would be known as the Australian Victim of Terrorism Overseas Payment, the AVTO Payment.
Australian governments already have a long and justifiably proud record of supporting our citizens at times of trouble abroad. Following the Bali bombing in 2002, the Howard government provided access to rehabilitation services from the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service as well as financial assistance for medical expenses not otherwise covered and, of course, people were evacuated to Australian hospitals where necessary. After the second Bali bombing in 2005 the then coalition government flew the Australian flag with pride, providing medical evacuations for all injured people, regardless of nationality. For Australians, financial assistance was provided in a range of areas, including reasonable costs of counselling and psychological care both for those directly affected and for their families. Out-of-pocket medical expenses were also covered. When the London Underground suffered a terrorist attack in the same year, the government again came to assist. The Egypt bombing and Middle East crisis of 2006 and the Mumbai terror attack of 2008 also saw the Australian government of the day lending a much-needed hand to Australians who found themselves the unwitting victims of terrorism on foreign soil.
We cannot escape the fact that Australians are being deliberately targeted by terrorist groups by virtue of the very fact that they are Australians, or Westerners more generally, and because of our actions in the Middle East. They are targeted, very often simply because they are Australians, by people who have a hatred of our way of life, our freedoms and liberties and the morals and values we are fortunate to espouse. While these examples highlight the fact that the Australian government has always stood by its citizens when disaster strikes abroad, they are also all too vivid reminders that Australians are not immune to international terror.
This bill formalises government assistance to victims of international terrorism, providing the same kind of support that would be extended to the victims of crime at home by state and territory governments. The bill will allow a payment of a compensatory amount of up to $75,000 to those who qualify for it, these being Australians who are injured as result of an overseas terrorist act and, secondly, close family members of Australians who are killed or who die within two years of suffering injuries as a result of an overseas terrorist act. One might say that $75,000 is not a lot of money, but at least it is a contribution to assist people through a time of crisis. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, about 300 Australians have been directly impacted—either killed or injured—by overseas terrorism. That is an average of 30 people a year, so that would cost the government roughly $2,250,000. The bill has bipartisan support and I commend it to the Senate.
I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill. Australia, quite rightly, owes a huge debt to those who are victims of terrorism, as well as to their families. This bill is essential in honouring Australians whose life has been affected by those who seek to destroy Australia and its way of life; by those who choose the killing and maiming of innocent people as their means to attempt to achieve their twisted political aims. In support of this bill I will talk briefly about the threat of terrorism to Australia, its prevalence and why some formal recognition of those that are victims of such atrocities should rightfully be included in Australia's legislation.
Terrorism itself is not a transparent subject; nor does it have an agreed-upon definition in the international community. Terrorists are not subject to the rules of international law, as lone terrorists, collective terrorist groups or terrorists as a whole are not recognised as an international entity with a governing body. This means that, essentially, nations are dealing with an unknown enemy that is outside the moralistic international rules of war that governing nations generally adhere to, with the consequence that terrorist attacks are one of the deadliest threats to a nation's sovereignty.
Whilst there may not be an international definition of what constitutes a terrorist, there is general agreement within the international community about what constitutes a terrorist attack. A terrorist attack is one that is dangerously high in lethality and is conducted with the aim of causing the highest amount of destruction that it possibly can. They generally have a high level of collateral damage and the perpetrators are spurred on by political or moral ideals that contrast with those of the intended victims. This is particularly the case when one is dealing with the threat of terrorism from Islamic extremists, who desire to live in an Islamic superstate—a desire that conflicts with the presence of the West. It is this group of individuals that poses the greatest level of threat to Australia, which is exacerbated by our lack of means to deal with the issue within international law.
The Western world's attention was sharply refocused on the threat of terrorism in 2001 by the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and by the attempted attack on the White House, more commonly referred to as 9/11, although the threat of terrorism had been in existence for a long time before that. Following those incidents many subsequent terrorist attacks were implemented against various Western nations. To date, over 300 Australians have lost their lives in terrorist related attacks since 2001. A number of terrorist groups arose out of the confusion that reigned after 9/11, which had provided the international focus to bring disparate groups together in their hatred of Western ideals, thereby spreading their networks across the globe. The extremist groups that conduct these attacks are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to orchestrate their attacks so as to cause the most collateral damage. At times, this includes the use of children and the deliberate sacrifice of their own lives. The rise of international terrorism is all the more lethal in the globalised world; new technologies that can cause greater numbers of casualties arise, and a larger terrorist network allows a greater number of targets to be identified.
We are dealing with extremist ideology. This extremist ideology is not bound by any social morals or rules of war, nor are the perpetrators signatories of any treaties. This is a war where there is an uneven playing field, because Australia and our allies are bound by such principles—as we should be. Terrorists' extremist views are absolutist in their actions. Their actions are intended to have the maximum effect that they possibly can; this effect is measured in the amount of collateral damage caused and/or the degree to which their victims have been maimed. Make no mistake, these extremists have targeted Australia.
Terrorist groups exploit the wealth of the Western world to embed feelings of distrust and envy. Those feelings are then manipulated in such a way as to encourage membership of disgruntled, lower socioeconomic individuals who feel that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain in the afterlife if they take as many of the Western heathens with them as possible. Also manipulated to recruit members are various events in which the Western world can be spun as a negative perpetrator—for example, Western support for Israel, the war in Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan. Given Australia's involvement with these events, it is no surprise that various groups, including the highest funded terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, have named Australia as a target in which the state must be abolished. Australia values everything that these extremists individuals despise, such as religious tolerance, freedom of speech, the rule of law, principles of equality and, above all, a modern, pluralistic, non-sectarian, democratic government.
Although the number of incidents in the West may seem to have fallen, the threat is growing, as terrorist groups continued to make links across the globe. To give an example of this, al-Qaeda has admitted that it continues to have links to Jemaah Islamiah, a terrorist sect located in Indonesia and its geographical neighbours. It is well-known that al-Qaeda has trained many of the JI members in training camps, provided logistical support for many of its planned operations and provided substantial aid. This partnership has taken the lives of Australians in the past, such as the Bali bombings in 2002 that claimed the lives of 202 people, including 88 Australians.
Despite the excellent work done by our enforcement and intelligence agencies, the threat to Australians from organisations such as al-Qaeda and JI remains. As such, it is appropriate and prudent that we acknowledge this threat and plan for its potential outcomes, which is why I support the need for some form of recognition of those who have lost their lives in these attacks and the ongoing effect it has had or may have on their loved ones. Such tragic loss of life arises not because of their own personal actions or their own characteristics but because of what they represent. They are targeted because of their way of life, because they represent the Australian way, a way characterised by the principles of freedom for all and equality—principles that are anathema to these extremists.
Because of the deeply political motives behind their targeting, Australian victims of terrorism pay the price for an attack on all Australians. Accordingly, all Australians need to acknowledge the price, as well as the price paid by their families and loved ones—the people who are left behind. In stating that this country needs to acknowledge these victims and their families, I am not implying that this country has not taken this responsibility seriously in the past. Government has always provided necessary practical assistance, such as Centrelink payments, medical assistance and so on. However, this country needs to go much further than we have and provide formal recognition that clearly demonstrates our support and commitment to these individuals for the sacrifices they and their families have made. Australia needs to recognise the impacts that these attacks have on the lives of those affected, whether it is medical, psychological or financial, and ensure appropriate compensation is in place to ensure that these impacts can be redressed by government, so far as is possible.
What this bill proposes is not much different to that in the victims of crime legislation available to victims of crimes committed within the states and territories. It takes that concept and translates it into a federal recognition of crimes committed against our citizens that have resulted in the death or maiming of an individual outside our borders. It is an appropriate way for the community to acknowledge these terrible events that have befallen our fellow citizens, and the sacrifice they have made, not through any fault of their own but because they represent a way of life we all enjoy and believe in. It is a means through which this country can acknowledge their loss and show our support for their eventual wellbeing. It is appropriate that we acknowledge that those who are victims of crime overseas, in this case terrorism, are just as detrimentally affected by such events as those who suffer as a result of criminal acts within our borders, and they should be treated accordingly.
The sad reality is that the threat of terrorism is not going to go away. Indeed it is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. This threat will be persistent and, tragically, may grow in lethality as sects grow in numbers and experience. It is essential that this chamber recognises this as fact and acts accordingly to show its support.
The coalition, I am proud to say, has taken a lead on this much needed bill and moved a very similar bill prior to the government introducing this one. The coalition recognises that the victims of these crimes, as well as their loved ones, face a massive irreversible loss, and a national recognition of that loss and sacrifice is an important way that the community can demonstrate its support, sympathy and understanding. In saying that, I am fully aware that monetary compensation will never replace their loss or adequately pay for that sacrifice. But it may assist them to deal with some of the financial consequences that inevitably do flow following such a loss. The bill should be supported.
I also rise to address the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. This is the second time I have risen to address this topic, given the long history of coalition support for this measure. Going back to 2009, 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 and on 21 February 2011 Mr Abbott again tabled a bill in the other place. So this is yet another bill that the coalition will support looking at how and why we should support people who have been victims of terrorism overseas.
The question that some in the public may ask is: why should we put in place a scheme to support people who have been victims of terrorism overseas? Firstly, there is the issue of precedent. We have well established precedents in this country whereby we provide care for individuals who have been injured through no fault of their own. Probably the one that is most widespread and that all of us contribute to is compulsory third party motor vehicle insurance. We contribute to a scheme to ensure that people who are injured, through no fault of their own, receive care. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is one where we are looking at situations where people have an inherited disability, and families have essentially inherited an obligation to care for them, through no fault of their own. We are looking for ways to provide for those people. There are also precedents in countries such as Israel; the UK, Northern Ireland in particular; and the United States, where there are well established schemes to recognise the burdens that fall upon people due to injuries received or, in the case of death, burdens that fall upon close family members, because of acts of terrorism. Generally speaking, I believe in personal responsibility and the fact that people should be taking steps to care for themselves. Some people have asked, in relation to this proposed act, why it is that we do not just require people to take out insurance. Since the 9/11 attacks, increasingly travel insurance policies have had specific exclusions for acts of terrorism. So even those people who wish to take measures to protect themselves and their families when travelling do not have options, under many policies now, to take out that measure of cover. Again, this bill is one way we can extend the precedence set for domestic situations, such as motor vehicles, to our citizens. The government has taken some steps in terms of commercial insurance onshore to give business confidence, but that does not extend to people who are travelling overseas. So there are some very strong precedents that I think support this bill, which is why the coalition has since 2009 put forward three bills to this end to give support to victims of terrorism.
The second question is why Australians are being targeted overseas. Sometimes it would be easy to assume that it was just the wrong time and the wrong place and that it was completely random. But the reality of the attacks in London, in Bali and in America is that while they may not be targeted against the individual they are definitely targeted against people with common characteristics. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has quite clearly identified in its paper Transnational terrorism: the threat to Australia that Australia is a terrorist target, both as a Western nation and in its own right. Almost without exception in the contemporary global setting, terrorism has links to extreme Islamist groups. The DFAT paper goes on to say:
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.
So the very things that actually define us as a nation—being a liberal Western democracy, our value of individual life, which is part of what brings us to support this measure—are the very things that make us a target to some people around the world.
It is important to recognise that there are those different world views and that whilst we continue to maintain those values that have made Australia a great place to live, a place that values individuals, we will be a target. That should not make us retreat from the defence of that world view. Particularly as we look at things like the Arab Spring unfolding, and we look at events in countries like Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, we need to understand that there are different world views, different values placed on life, and we should never be ashamed to stand up for the values that Australia represents.
As we listen to the voices of people in Egypt as they face a very uncertain time, we hear the concerns of minority communities there, such as Christian Copts. We hear the concerns of people in Syria, such as the Alawites, the Druze and, again, the Christians about the lot they will face given the regime change that may occur. The Bishop of Aleppo, for example, has highlighted that should regime change occur it would be the end of his population in Syria. Some world views and some forms of government do not have the same respect for freedom of religion, for the equality of men and women and for providing equal opportunity that we have here in Australia. Those things make us a target, but we should never back away from supporting them.
One of the particular aspects of the bill that I wish to look it is the provision in the proposed new section to enable the secretary to determine an amount payable to a primary victim which must not exceed $75,000. The $75,000 in some cases may assist somebody who has suffered either physical or mental harm. But in other cases, particularly where there has been significant physical injury or psychological harm to the point of someone not being able to work, I have to acknowledge that that amount will not cover the loss that those people will suffer financially, in quality of life and in their relationships, given the impact that these kinds of events can have on people and their families. I recognise that in some cases it may appear generous while in some cases it will be woefully inadequate.
The system tries to recognise that there are both primary victims and secondary victims and puts in place a mechanism whereby, when the primary victim—somebody who was actually at the scene of the incident and was killed at the time or within two years—passes away, close family members are entitled to make a claim for some compensation. The total claim cannot exceed $75,000, and multiple parties—siblings or children of that person—can share that.
My concerns are more about part 2 of the schedule, which presents amendments to other acts. Item 15, for example, amends the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 to ensure that these payments are not income for the purposes of assessing entitlements paid under that act, such as family tax benefit and childcare benefit. Item 16 amends the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Act 1975 so that this payment is not regarded as compensation to recover from Medicare payments and services provided. Likewise, items 17, 18, 20 and 21 amend other acts to make sure that this payment can be used by people.
I note, though, that there are no proposed amendments in the bill to exclude the payments from the definition of income in section 8, which is the incomes test of the Social Security Act, or from the definition of asset in section 9 of the act. I would welcome any clarification from the minister as to the intent there. If you look at section 8, there is a whole list of exceptions that very clearly shows that the intent of the parliament is that, where people receive a payment in recognition of something that has occurred above and beyond normal life circumstances—and there are payments in there for a whole raft of things: for example, for people who contract HIV, for veterans for different reasons—this payment should not detract from the normal assessment of their income and other benefits. I note that there is no proposed amendment to exclude the payment from section 8 or 9 under the SSA. Likewise, there are no corresponding amendments to the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986 to exclude these payments from the income and assets test definitions and applications for our veterans.
What those two omissions would mean, if I am reading this correctly, is that on the one hand the government will say to a person in these circumstances that the government recognise that something out of the ordinary and beyond the person's control has occurred and, just like the government compensate people in other situations, the person will be eligible for some compensation from the people of Australia, while on the other hand the government will say that they will treat that as an asset or as income, which may then disadvantage the person in terms of the other payments that they are receiving to manage their normal affairs. I am happy to be proven wrong. I would welcome some clarification from the minister. That concerns me because if people are already suffering injury or families have lost the income earner for their home and they see the $75,000 as some assistance—and, as I have already said, in many cases it will already be inadequate compared to the loss or disadvantage faced by people—to then have other entitlements cut as a result of receiving this money, to my mind, defeats the purpose and intent of this parliament providing that payment.
In conclusion, the coalition do support this bill. We have put forward a very similar bill several times in the past. I have spoken on this previously. We do it because the nature of Australian society is that we place a value on individual life and we recognise that we have a duty of care to those around us when things occur to them that are beyond their control. I reinforce the point that we will continue to be a target for terrorists because of the values that we hold. That should not make us back away from standing up for those. If anything, it should make us defend them all the more vigorously, which is part of what we are doing by passing this bill today. I support the bill.
I rise today to also speak in a truncated manner about this particular piece of legislation, the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. As previous speakers have acknowledged, this bill is an important acknowledgement of the cost that Australian families and individuals pay in response to overseas terrorist incidents simply by virtue of being an Australian citizen, in many cases, and hence being the target of these reprehensible acts by overseas terrorists. We should not forget that high price that is being paid. This bill is actually a copy, as was mentioned earlier today, of the private senator's bill introduced by the coalition in March this year by Senator Brandis. It follows a long line of private members' bills seeking to address the cost that is paid by individuals and families who are influenced and hurt as a result of terrorist attacks.
Since 11 September 2001, some 300 Australians have been killed or injured in terrorist incidents overseas. We know Australians died in the World Trade Centre. We know many Australians died in Bali in two terrorist attacks. Australians died in a terrorist attack in London. So we lost Australians in the World Trade Centre. We lost too many Australians in Bali, not once but twice. And we lost Australians in London. We have also lost Australian citizens in Jakarta. Some 300 Australians have been killed or injured simply because of their citizenship and the value that we hold dear within this nation of freedom—freedom to worship, freedom to express our opinions and freedom to live and work together.
So let us never forget that those bombs went off because the perpetrators of these outrageous attacks believe that our way of life, for them, is equivalent to evil. That is what they believe—that how we live our lives, how we conduct our governance and how we go about our everyday existence is actually evil. That is what they believe. The people who died or were injured in these terrorist incidents were targeted precisely because of their way of life, their values and the civilisations of which they were a part. Australia has been targeted precisely because we are part of the Western civilisation and the values system which these terrorists hate. It should be remembered that after each of the terrorist incidents which I have just mentioned the Australian government was there to help. Centrelink assistance was rendered. Medical expenses were paid. I want to congratulate governments of both persuasions for the efforts they have made to help Australians, and they 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 and the civilisation in which they participate. Simply as a result of our civilisation and values, the act of terrorism, the act of random violence against innocents, has a specific impact on our value systems that it does not necessarily have in other places. We cannot thank these agencies enough for the assistance that they rendered. We must stand by our fellow Australians in trouble, those who are targeted because they are Australian.
I will go to the bill specifically now. The bill provides for up to $75,000 in government compensation to be paid to people affected by an overseas terrorism act. They can be either primary victims—those directly involved in the attack itself, who have to have been in close proximity to or within the place where the specific terrorist attack occurred—or secondary victims, in the event of the death of a close family member. Who is defined as a close family member is outlined within the legislation.
Eligibility for the scheme requires the Prime Minister to declare the incident an overseas terrorist act. I am confident that Australian prime ministers understand very clearly what constitutes an overseas terrorism act and will be more than willing and able to respond if the horrible need arises. The applicants would have to be Australian residents and, for obvious reasons, would have to have in no way contributed to the act itself. An additional aspect is that victims will not be required to repay Medicare, workers compensation or other benefits. Payments under the scheme would be tax exempt.
I would like to mention, though, that the coalition moved amendments to see if payments could be applied retrospectively. However, the amendments were not passed in the other place. I would also like to mention that we do have a variety of other acts within the Commonwealth that deal with victims of criminal acts, and obviously acts of terrorism are defined as criminal acts right throughout the Commonwealth. Within Victoria, Victorians are covered by the Victims' Charter Act 2006. However, that only covers terrorism acts within the state, not overseas. Victoria has also passed referring legislation under section 51(xxxvii) of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, giving the Commonwealth powers to cover this sort of thing.
I was overseas during the 2001 attacks. I was in North America, not in America itself but in Canada, on that fateful day. It was quite horrific to wake up, and I had young children with me at the time, in a foreign land, albeit a Western country. We woke up on the other side of Canada to the news of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. To see the carnage, to watch firsthand how people within that nation dealt with the absolute horror of what had occurred in America on that day was very moving.
I remember that my father, who is a milkman, was up very early in the morning delivering milk to the various small shops in Gippsland. He is not a very emotive man and does not regularly call or write but he gave me a very early phone call that morning. Obviously, Australians knew about it a lot earlier than people on the west coast of Canada did. He said, 'I want you to get on a plane, Bridget; I want you to get home.' It was something that struck me because it was quite out of character for my father. The people who went through the carnage and horror of that event have struggled to rebuild their life over time, struggled to reconnect and make sense of the act itself and also the loss of family members and loved ones. Governments internationally are struggling with the way we deal with the new risks involved in a globalised world. We have all had to struggle with how we are going to deal with this, and this piece of legislation will assist families. It can never cover the cost that they have had to bear as a result of our shared values. It will never bring back their loved one or repair the damage personally in a physical and mental sense that has occurred as a result of these horrendous act. But it will allow them to know that they have been recognised by the state and it will allow them to seek other means to help them deal with their loss.
I am extremely conscious of the lack of time and the long list of coalition senators who would like to speak to this piece of legislation. Before the guillotine is enforced, in approximately seven minutes, I will have to conclude my remarks. I did want to go on to more specific things that I have an issue with within the legislation but obviously I will run out of time to do that. I will cede before time.
I realise that time is short so I will make just a few quick observations about the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. This bill is essentially the one that was put forward by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, and that was introduced into this chamber as a private senator's bill by Senator Brandis on behalf of Mr Abbott.
It is gratifying that the government saw the merit in Mr Abbott's proposal and picked that up. That is a good thing. That is, to some extent, the impact that private senator's bills and private member's bills can have in this place. Individual members and senators, even the opposition, can put forward a good idea. We never complain on this side when the government picks up a good idea. There is one slightly disappointing aspect though, and that is after the government indicated that they thought this legislation was a good idea it took the best part of 12 months before the bill was brought forward, put in a place where it could be debated and where we could get to it. That was a little disappointing. Another element of disappointment with this piece of legislation is that one of the proposals put forward by Mr Abbott, that this legislation go back and cover the period before the Bali bombings, was not picked up by the government. The opposition did move amendments in the other place. Those amendments failed but we are still of the view that this is one area where it would be appropriate to have a retrospective element to the legislation. Not all retrospective acts of parliament are bad; some are good. In this instance I think there was a strong case to have a retrospective element.
I should point out that this bill was almost a casualty of the government's own guillotine. Last night we were in the situation where the House had already dealt with this bill but, because of technical matters related to the printing and transmission of the bill, it was not in a position to get to the Senate at the time that it was scheduled. If the opposition had not cooperated with the government, if we had observed the government's own guillotine motion, if we had insisted on the government's own guillotine motion being observed, that bill would have been effectively bounced from the guillotine into next week. There would have been a further delay of the passage of this legislation. I think that again just goes to show the folly of the guillotine and also the inadequacy of the government's management of this place.
Things are best done in this place by cooperation. We demonstrated that on Monday night when we facilitated the passage of 19 pieces of non-controversial legislation. We demonstrated that it is with cooperation that this place should operate when we agreed with the government last night to adjourn the Senate early so that this piece of legislation did not come on for debate. If it had, as I said, it would have been bounced to next Wednesday. Because we agreed with the government to adjourn early last night, it enabled the message, the transmission, to happen so that we could deal with this piece of legislation first up today. I think it is important that the chamber acknowledge the opposition's cooperation in that regard.
The essence of this bill is effectively to introduce a Commonwealth equivalent of state victims-of-crime legislation, but in this case to cover Australians who are injured overseas because of terrorist acts. We know from the Bali bombings that Australians are now targeted simply by virtue of being Australian, simply by virtue of their nationality. We know that the reason that happens is that they are seen to be representatives of a nation that has a particular value set, that believes in democracy, that believes in pluralism, that believes in the rule of law.
There are certain world views that find the rule of law and democracy and pluralism anathema. There are certain world views that find those things offensive. It was once said, and I think it probably is still said in Israel, that every Israeli citizen is, in effect, a front line soldier. That has been the view in Israel because Israeli citizens at home and abroad are often targeted because of their nationality, because they come from a nation that is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. I am not saying Australians find themselves with quite the same existential threat that Israelis do, but we do now find ourselves in a situation more akin to that which Israelis have experienced, where Australians overseas are targeted because they are seen to be representatives of a pluralist democracy. That is a relatively new development and it is a situation where the Australian government I think does have a duty of care to Australian citizens.
Of course, the Australian government has a duty of care to assist Australian citizens around the world where they may be in distress. That assistance is rendered through consular and other measures. But there is now I think an additional appropriate duty of care for the Australian government to assist Australians who are victims of terrorism overseas with their expenses. There are models in state jurisdictions where victims of crime receive some compensation, some support, for what is a misfortune, for circumstances beyond their control. That is one of the core responsibilities of government—to assist their citizens who face additional challenges for reasons beyond their control. We see it in my own portfolio of disabilities. That is the heart of the rationale for government support in my portfolio. We see it in state jurisdictions in relation to victims of crime, and I think it is appropriate and long overdue that that same duty of care to Australian victims of terrorism who find themselves facing additional challenges from circumstances beyond their control be addressed.