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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 786

Mr CHESTER (7:50 PM) —I join with other members who have spoken already on the motion put forward by the member for Fremantle on the tragic earthquake which occurred in Haiti on 12 January. I am sure many of us as members of parliament were having a well-earned break with our family and friends in the summer holiday period at the time. Sitting at home and seeing the images broadcast into our lounge rooms, I do not think anyone could not have been moved to tears, particularly those in Victoria who experienced the Black Saturday bushfires recently. But the sheer scale of this disaster really put our lives into perspective at a very difficult time. I take great pleasure in being here on behalf of the people of Gippsland to express our sympathy and sorrow and to express our support to the people of Haiti at this terrible time.

Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, was reported in the media on 28 January as saying that nearly 170,000 bodies had been counted. Today, listening to other members’ contributions, I have heard different figures. The different figures just stun me. It is another level of dysfunction in an already impoverished nation, but coming to grips with the actual numbers is impossible for us as members of parliament here in Australia when you think that 170,000 is the population of Ballarat and Bendigo combined. If we reflect on the Black Saturday bushfires again, 173 people died in that disaster and it was the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history. So for us here in Australia to try to comprehend the level of destruction in Haiti is extremely difficult. We must also reflect that a wealthy nation like Australia was far better placed to deal with the tragedy that befell us only 12 months ago in terms of infrastructure, resources and assistance in place to cope with what confronted us as a natural disaster. I know we debate our health system a lot in this place but in comparison to the support that is available to the people of Haiti at this terrible time I think we have very little to complain about. But I trust no-one will hold that against me in future debates when we discuss all the issues in Gippsland!

I express my deepest sympathy to the people of Haiti and recognise the ongoing issues of homelessness, security and certainly what may be a decade of rebuilding. I also note—and other members have as well—that the motion refers to the United Nations and the greatest loss of life that the organisation has faced in its history. Our thoughts are with the families and friends and very much so with the member for Fremantle, who carries herself with a great deal of dignity and has the respect of both sides of the House. Our thoughts are with her at this time.

Even amidst this enormous tragedy there have been some remarkable stories of survival. Fifteen days after the earthquake the rescuers retrieved a 16-year-old Haitian girl out of the rubble of the college of St Gerard in Port-au-Prince. The young lady’s name was Darlene Etienne and she was described as weak but happy. What lies ahead for Darlene and her compatriots is something that I think we need to reflect on more here in Australia, and the level of support that our government can provide. The uncertainty that faces the nation of Haiti and young Darlene is something that concerns me deeply and I know it concerns others on both sides of the House. The federal government has donated $10 million, which was supported in a bipartisan manner. That was the immediate relief but also there was $5 million for reconstruction. I certainly personally support that aid.

I do take some exception to the member for Fremantle’s reflections on Senator Joyce’s remarks at the Press Club. I was there on the day and the media coverage and the government’s key messages do not sit exactly with my recollection of Barnaby Joyce’s comments on that day. They were reflective rather than prescriptive remarks, indicating that there were hard decisions to be made to balance the nation’s books in the future in terms of debt. So I do not believe it was quite as cut and dried as the government’s key lines seem to be reflecting in their attacks on Senator Joyce at the moment. I am not aware of any change in the aspirational policy of the opposition regarding the foreign aid budget. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation himself has repeatedly indicated that everything will be up for review in the future in terms of paying back our debt. Having said that, I do not want to diminish at all the spirit of this occasion in our parliament’s reflections on behalf of our communities and I certainly support the need to provide government assistance to the people of Haiti.

I also want to reflect on the fact that Australians are very generous people and that they do not always just depend on government aid to flow through to express their support. There is a lot of direct support coming through from Australian people right around the world. They recognise opportunities to make contributions themselves at a person-to-person level rather than relying on the government-to-government level. There have been many direct donations, I know, from people within the broader Australian community. I take up the previous member’s comments regarding it not being in our backyard but, as global citizens, we do have a responsibility to help wherever we can. Australians have shown their generous spirit on many occasions in the past and I am sure will continue to show that spirit in the future. I thank the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Dr MJ Washer)—Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.