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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1816

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (09:37): 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.