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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1819


Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (09:49): 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.