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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1820

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (09:56): 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.