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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1822


Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (10:08): I rise to contribute to this debate on Senator Brandis's private senator's bill, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. Until the last few minutes I had intended to continue in the same vein as Senator Humphries because much of what he was saying is the absolute imperative we have as a government and as a legislature: to ensure that Australians travelling overseas who are the victims of a terrorism act can be guaranteed that they are going to be cared for by their government, regardless of its political persuasion.

Senator Wright made a very important point when she said that this is an important policy issue that has the support of all members of parliament. It is not something we should be playing politics with. Therefore, it is pretty frustrating that we have had this bill brought forward today for debate when last year, on 24 March, Mr McClelland, the Attorney-General at the time, introduced a much more compre­hensive bill and no-one was playing politics about that at the time. That bill was developed in consultation and with lots of negotiation with the opposition, with Mr Abbott's office, with the shadow Attorney-General and with those people who were very concerned after the introduction of Mr Abbott's bill in 2009. It was tabled and nothing further was done with it and then it was tabled again in 2010, that time with an explanatory memorandum so people could understand the intent. From that point on there have been very significant negotiations to try to clarify issues and to seek important advice not just from the Attorney-General but from the people Senator Humphries mentioned today—the people who are part of this and are mentioned in Senator Brandis's bill. In the outline to the bill Senator Brandis says:

In administering the framework, the Attorney-General must regularly consult with representatives of victims and their families, community or welfare organisations, health professionals, international humanitarian agencies and any other relevant bodies.

And in his contribution this morning Senator Brandis pointed to the victims-of-crimes legislation in our state and territory jurisdictions as being the model on which his bill has been developed. But there is a problem here. The problem we have is that this Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012 is an isolated bill, standing within the framework of the Attorney-General and giving a lot of responsibility to the minister of the day in determining the framework, the eligibility criteria, the payment system, the administration and the development of guidelines, which are not here yet and no-one can guess what they are. So this bill sits outside other pieces of work that the government is involved in.

Senator Humphries was, I think, part of a recent Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into the treatment of Australians kidnapped overseas and the way in which they can be supported. Out of the experiences we have had of Australians kidnapped overseas there have been very serious, comprehensive and wise processes and guidelines put in place through our consular agencies to strengthen the capacity of our consular assistance to help victims and their families. And the model that came out of the investigation of the Brennan case has actually brought forward for the government's consideration, with the support of the opposition, a range of strategies and assistance measures that are all being rolled out and put in place now. Those measures are also consistent with the social security bill which is currently in the House of Representatives.

At the time of the introduction of the bill by Mr Abbott in the House of Representatives, the government was beginning the discussion around the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Again, there are parallels with the complementary considerations to be brought into play in the way in which victims of overseas terrorist acts and their families will be treated when they are repatriated to Australia and the way in which their families are going to be supported through the trauma that is part of dealing with such awful incidents. So that is another part of the whole-of-government approach that we are trying to take to these issues. Again, Senator Brandis makes no mention of this. I have to say that his bill is disturbingly light on details and it does leave many crucial and critical questions unanswered.

We do not want to play politics with this issue; it is far too important. What we want to do is ensure that the way in which we provide support and the mechanism of support for Australian citizens who are victims of overseas terrorist acts are consistent with the ways the international community is trying to deal with them, because there has been an internationalis­ation of terrorism and we are part of the international community that is trying to deal with it. Through the lessons that we are learning and the way in which we are trying to craft a support package and a support network for people who are in this extraordinary situation, we are trying to be consistent with what is happening in other countries.

I would like to go to that for a moment, if I may, because you know, Madam Acting Deputy President, how interested I am in the way in which victims of terrorist acts are supported in Northern Ireland. That is a very good model for the way in which we are trying to prepare our own support. There are international best practice models: Israel, the United States and Northern Ireland. Israel pays compensation to victims of terrorist acts and it is financed through a national insurance scheme. This may well be part of one of the considerations in the framework of our national disability insurance scheme. We have yet to come to that kind of conclusion, but it does go to the issue of policy coherence.

Northern Ireland has a criminal injuries tariff compensation scheme, which was established in 2009, and that applies to all incidents occurring on or after 1 April 2009. That is dealing with the issue of retrospectivity and it is an issue that we too need to think about in Australia. To qualify for a payment in Northern Ireland, the person must be a victim of a crime of violence, and that can include arson or an act of poisoning. We do not even have a definition of a terrorist act in Senator Brandis's bill. We do not have that defined clearly enough, but in Northern Ireland they have actually said it goes beyond bombing and it goes beyond kidnapping. It can go to arson, and many fires have been set in Northern Ireland that have resulted in terrible tragedies. Poisoning is another interesting conversation we could be having about terrorism. Those people who are victims of some crime of violence are covered by the scheme. They need to be physically and/or mentally injured as a result and to have been in Northern Ireland at the time that the injury was sustained. That again is a very different model to the one we are discussing, because we are talking about Australian citizens in international circumstances where we do not have sovereignty. So we have to make sure that we are consistent with the international models and also that we are able to do the very best we can for Australian citizens in that situation. In Northern Ireland the compensation can include a prescribed lump sum payment for personal injury based on the scheme's schedule of mains amounts, and that aligns with workers compensation schemes here in Australia. Values are put on the level of physical injury that may have occurred.

Such is the complexity of putting together a proposition so as to assist victims of overseas terrorist activities. That is why we as a government have not presented this argument and this package of support through an Attorney-General's bill but rather as an amendment to the Social Security Act. That is the way in which we want to consider supporting victims and their families through something that will be horrific, lifelong, terrifying and an enduring, debilitating experience for them. How long people can access assistance is a very significant issue for us to consider and it is being considered in the framework of the government's bill. I wondered whether Senator Humphries was aware that the bill had been introduced in the House of Representatives because he did seem to think that no matter who was putting this issue forward it was worthy of consideration.

I do not want to play the politics of this because the situation is so important. The government's bill, introduced in March 2011, has been the subject of significant negotia­tion around the detail. It is quite specific and very comprehensive. The explanatory memorandum is very comprehensive. The Bills Digest, which is available from the Parliamentary Library, is quite detailed and raises some issues too. Concerns raised by the community and our colleagues in the parliament are being taken into account by the Attorney-General and the Minister for Human Services. It is very difficult to stand here and say, 'Well, we are not going to support this bill.' Some would like to present it to the Australian community as meaning that the government was not going to be supporting victims of overseas terrorism. That would be an awful message because it is simply untrue.

We are acutely aware that the system is a little ad hoc, discretionary and challenging. The system needs to take into account the higher level of alertness that we have to terrorist activities around the world, the ways in which they may happen and where they may happen. Australians are avid travellers with the opportunity and the incentive to get out and see the world. Australian citizens caught up in terrorist activity may well be in countries where we do not have strong international support or with which we do not have bilateral relations. We are not thinking only of people who are killed in overseas terrorist incidents. In Bali in 2002, for example, there were 182 Australians injured, as well as the 88 who lost their lives. So this is not just a scheme that requires consideration of repatriation of the bodies of loved ones; it is also a scheme that needs to take into account the maiming and injury of Australian citizens and the way in which we are going to care for them, sometimes lifelong.

In Bali, 182 were injured and 88 were killed. For September 11, we do not actually have a clear figure of how many Australians were injured, but of course we do know that we had 10 Australians killed. In 2003, we had someone injured in an incident in Riyadh. We also had someone injured in Istanbul. In Saudi Arabia, we had an Australian national killed. In Bali, in 2005, there were 17 Australians injured and four more killed. In London, we had 10 Australian nationals injured and one killed. In Egypt, two more were injured and in Mumbai, India, in 2008, we had four. So you can see that around the world, as we see an increase in terrorist activity, the way in which we have to deal with victims of these kinds of incidents is actually going to become more complex. That is why as a government we are saying, 'Let's take a more holistic approach. Let's find the way through.'

If you go to the detail of Senator Brandis's bill, it is quite clear. It looks at a compensation level of up to $75,000. That is consistent with the government's position. Senator Brandis's bill does not actually make the point about whether they are primary or secondary victims, which the government's bill does. The government's bill acknow­ledges that there are secondary victims. They may be the families that are having to deal with a family member who has been severely injured or, of course, who has lost their life. So the idea that we can simplistically think about what is a very complex, distressing tragedy of Australians killed or injured overseas as a result of terrorism really does not do justice to those people who are in that unfortunate situation and it certainly does not do justice to Australians in giving them confidence when they travelling overseas.

Let us think very clearly about what is going to happen. The bill does not specify the proposed framework that applies to particular events. Neither does it specifically state whether or not the issue of retrospect­ivity is being considered. Previously, former minister Ellison, commenting on that 2009 bill, said that no, retrospectivity was not being considered because there had been significant compensation to the Bail bombing victims at the time. He made a general statement—not in the parliament but in commentary—about that. That is not clear in what Senator Brandis is proposing today. Senator Humphries also said that we would not expect that people would be duplicating the financial assistance already paid to Australian victims. Senator Brandis's bill does not go to the issue of travel insurance or where that might fit in the scheme of things. It certainly does not go to workers compensation, income insurance or those kinds of arrangements that people put in place now when they are travelling. So it is pretty short-sighted and pretty thin on the detail.

We know that terrorism is a type of war in which the enemy—the terrorist organis­ation—selects random victims as its target, and we, as global travellers, are significant targets. As Senator Brandis said in his introductory comments today, we are the enemy. People abhor our lifestyle. They believe that we are really undermining civilisation as they know it and they want to target us. So we need to be sure that what we put in place for Australians travelling overseas is consistent and that there is policy coherence across all of the government's work. That is critically important. We want to make sure that whoever is caught as a victim of terrorism in the future is provided support in the long term.

We are going to be working very closely to bring on the social security amendment bill; the Attorney-General is working to do that very soon. Can I say in closing that Senator Wright is right: there are issues that still need to be considered, and we would certainly be supporting the Greens amendment to refer this bill to a Senate committee for inquiry.