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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1829

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (10:38): 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.

Senator Xenophon: The regulations are to fix that.

Senator FAULKNER: 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.