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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1830


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (10:53): It is often a pleasure to follow Senator Faulkner in debates in this place and it is no less so on this occasion. As Senator Faulkner said in his concluding remarks, the threat of terrorism against Australians is real and the need to deal appropriately with all aspects of that threat is equally real. The legislation before us, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012, seeks to deal with one aspect of the issues related to terrorism against Australians—just one aspect, but one very important aspect, and that is the support, assistance and recognition that is provided to Australian victims of terrorism in an international context.

As many of the contributors to this debate have highlighted, over the last decade in particular we have seen, and been reminded all too often of, how real that threat to Australians actually is. We have seen some 300 Australians suffer, as we know, as a result of terrorist incidents. We have lost the lives of Australians in incidents such as, of course, in the terrible attacks of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Centre; in Bali, on two separate occasions; in London and in Jakarta. Senator Stephens in her contribution listed many other parts of the world in which Australians have been injured and have suffered because of acts of international terrorism. Where Australians have died, overwhelmingly those attacks have been because of and targeted at the way of life that we in Australia have. Those Australians and others of Western nations have been targeted because fundamentalists want to wage a war against our way of life—the democratic freedoms that Australians and our allies in Western countries and others around the world espouse; those democratic principles and principles of freedom that we believe are so very important.

I am pleased that, in general, there is agreement throughout the chamber on the importance of what this bill seeks to do. This bill seeks essentially to provide assistance and support to Australian victims of terrorism analogous to the type of support provided to victims of crime in the Australian community. To put it in simple terms, if an Australian suffers hurt, injury or death as a result of a criminally related incident within Australia, there are schemes at the state level that provide a modest sum to the victim or the family of the victim in recognition of the pain they have gone through. In a sense it is a sign that the community wants to recognise the pain that they have gone through and to help them through those difficult circumstances. This legislation simply seeks to ensure that a similar scheme is in place for Australians who face and suffer similar pain offshore as a result of the types of terrorist incidents that I have mentioned. So I think this is a very important step forward.

The legislation puts in place provisions that ensure it is comparable to the state schemes I have highlighted. Payments are capped at $75,000, a modest sum—because this is not about compensation in a legal sense as it may be applied through the courts; this is about recognition and assistance—but a sum that, nonetheless, will be very helpful to people as they recover from injuries or from the loss of a loved one.

Senator Faulkner, Senator Stephens and others have highlighted that there is a not-dissimilar government proposal before the parliament: the Social Security Amendment (Supporting Australian Victims of Terrorism Overseas) Bill 2011. I welcome that piece of legislation. I look forward to seeing the parliament deal with this issue, whether through Senator Brandis's legislation or the government's legislation, in a sensible way that actually gets an outcome. I think that is an important thing for us to aspire to. It is for that reason that the coalition is happy to cooperate with and accept the Greens' amendment that there be a Senate inquiry into this bill, because we accept that there is an appropriate place for looking at the operation of the bill, to make sure that all the issues are considered. But, hopefully, as a result of that, we will then see the swift passage of at least one of these bills. For a long period of time now, people have been talking about and seeking to achieve the type of action, the type of assistance, that this legislation will deliver. I do hope that, as a result of that inquiry, we will see either the relevant amendments to satisfy the concerns of all contributors to this debate that will see this bill pass or the swift passage of the government's bill. But let us see some action. Let us see an outcome on this. Let us not see any more delays on this matter.

Responding to terrorism is not just related to the types of support and assistance that governments provide to victims. The support provided to victims has been well canvassed in this debate, including the types of support this bill seeks to apply and the practical assistance that governments of both persuasions have provided and, I have no doubt, will continue to provide to Australians who find themselves in trouble overseas. But the response to terrorism also involves trying to prevent it in the future and trying to hunt down, where necessary, the sources of the terrorism.

I compliment the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Bob Carr, for the way in which he addressed some of those issues in question time yesterday. Senator Bob Carr was asked about our role in Afghanistan. Australia entered Afghanistan under United Nations mandate to try to respond in particular to the attacks of September 11, to respond to the Taliban's involvement in and support of al-Qaeda and to try to ensure that we do not again see a state sanctioning, assisting or supporting the type of terrorist incident that occurred on September 11, 2001.

I can understand why, in the decade that has passed, many people now ask what we are still doing in Afghanistan and why we are there. Of course, 32 fine, young Australian servicemen have paid the ultimate price for our engagement in Afghanistan, and we have honoured and recognised each of those sacrifices in this place, as we should, and we should never forget what they have given. However, as Senator Bob Carr indicated yesterday, we are there for good reason. We are there because we sought to—and we seek to—deny the likes of al-Qaeda safe haven, a place from which to base their operations. In a country like Afghanistan, we also seek to leave the country in a better place, to ensure that, hopefully, the people of Afghanistan enjoy a better lifestyle under the government in the circumstances in which we leave the country than they did before the forces of Australia and other countries took the action that has been taken.

I compliment Senator Carr because I thought the fact that he highlighted at least one of the positive achievements that have occurred in Afghanistan, in response to questions on the matter yesterday, was very important. We do not hear those positive indicators often enough in this debate. For those who may have missed it, I again highlight the educational outcomes that he indicated are occurring. In 2001, there were just one million young Afghanis enrolled in their school system, virtually none of them young women. Today, there are over seven million young Afghanis receiving an education, with around 2.5 million young women. That is a fine accomplishment. It is through a sound education system for those millions of additional young Afghanis that we will see an Afghanistan that in the future is better able to have a successful economy, to engage sensibly in world affairs and to enjoy the types of advancements and opportunities that we hope to see in place for all Australians around the world.

In this place, and particularly throughout the Australian community, we need to do more and to say more to highlight the accomplishments that have occurred in Afghanistan. It is all too often too easy to dwell on the negatives and on the tragedies. Yes, there have been tragedies—there was a terrible tragedy this week—and we should acknowledge those and should mourn those deaths and those occasions where things have gone wrong; but, equally, we should highlight the accomplishments and the fact that the 32 young Australian troops, and the many more from other countries, who have fought and died in Afghanistan have not done so in vain and have done so to protect Australians and others from international acts of terrorism and, in doing so, have provided a better life for millions of Afghanis.

Because I may not have a chance to do so elsewhere in this debate, I highlight another instance of inhumane activity that is occurring in the world at present and some action that will take place today. Today, during question time, senators will be asked to sign a letter to the ambassadors of Russia and China that will circulate around the chamber. This letter relates to what is happening in Syria—another instance of oppression happening in the world at present and another instance about which many have grave concerns for the human rights violations occurring and for the acts occurring that replicate, in some ways, the types of terrorist incidents that we have talked about on occasions in this debate. Today is the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the uprising against the Syrian government. It is estimated that in this past year between 6,500 and 7,500 innocent civilians have been killed in the conflict in Syria. Tens of thousands have been injured or arrested, and around 18,000 people are thought to be facing arbitrary detention without the right to a fair trial. The letter that will be circulated in this chamber by Senator Moore and me and in the other place by Mr Ruddock and Mr Laurie Ferguson highlights:

The grim catalogue of torture and other ill treatment that has emerged from Syria's detention centres in a year of unrest against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

The letter calls on the United Nations Security Council to refer President al-Assad to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, to freeze the assets of the president and others involved in the regime in Syria and to impose an arms embargo. These are actions that the UN Security Council should have undertaken but sadly has not because member states, particularly Russia and China—to whom this letter is directed—have resisted this type of action through the UN Security Council. It calls on the ambassadors of Russia and China to urge their countries to use their influence over Syria and their influence at the UN Security Council to end this type of abuse. I hope that in some small way today's gesture by parliamentarians of all stripes will apply a little extra pressure for some outcome in that regard and, in doing so, will ultimately lead to a better outcome for those who are victims of terrible acts in Syria.

I return to the legislation before us, the Assisting Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill 2012. This legislation has a great capacity, and is an opportunity, to provide some assistance to Australian victims of terrorism. In closing, I urge the Senate to ensure that, after the inquiry into this legislation is complete, this matter is dealt with and dealt with swiftly. Whether through this bill or the government's bill, we should at least see put in place by the federal government a positive outcome and the support that is deserved and warranted by Australian victims of terrorism. I commend the bill to the Senate.