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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 49

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:50 PM) —On behalf of the opposition I wish to support the motion moved by Senator Hill on behalf of the government in memory of those killed by the Boxing Day tsunami. We offer our condolences to the families of the hundreds of thousands of dead and our sympathies to those whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. On behalf of the Australian Labor Party I would also like to make special mention of the Australians killed or missing in this terrible natural disaster.

This event, which has devastated the lives of so many, has also been the catalyst for an outpouring of generosity in this country and around the world. It is a response which has shown the very best that our society has to offer. I would also like to recognise the generosity of the Australian community and the dedication of our public servants, military and police personnel, doctors, nurses, engineers and others who have given up their time and made personal sacrifices to respond to this event. I would also like to recognise and support the swift and appropriate response of the Australian government and the assistance provided on behalf of all Australians. I will refer a bit later on to the aid package offered by the government. I would also like to make some points in regard to the role of the disaster victim identification teams and the establishment of an Indian Ocean early warning system.

The Boxing Day tsunami was caused by a massive earthquake off the coast of Aceh in Northern Sumatra. The earthquake registered nine on the Richter scale. It was the most severe earthquake in 40 years. It sent a tidal wave crashing onto the shores of countries surrounding the quake’s epicentre—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and other islands. It reached as far west as the Seychelles, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. The scope of it was just breathtaking.

To date, the estimated number of dead has exceeded 290,000—the worst affected country being our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, where it appears that up to 240,000 people have died. The UN has estimated that one million people were displaced and five million people deprived of basic services. From our own community, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, 12 Australian citizens and six permanent residents, ranging in age from six to 81 years, were among those confirmed dead, and there are concerns for a further nine. Our hearts go out to those in our community who mourn for friends and family and to those who wait for news of loved ones. We are aware of the anguish they must suffer. Millions more have lost their family, friends, homes and livelihoods. These people have to live the rest of their lives with the memory of the horror of that day. The economic impact of the disaster is still being assessed. According to the Bulletin magazine, Indonesia alone has some 700,000 people who have been left homeless and a repair bill estimated at $9.7 billion. Countless homes, businesses and jobs have been lost. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects on industries like tourism will be.

Like all Australians, and I think people across the world, I was horrified to see the events of Boxing Day unfold. And yet, like many, I have been heartened by the remarkable public response to this tragedy. On the day of the tsunami I was lucky enough to be on leave, holidaying in the beachside resort of Dunsborough in the south-west of WA. It seemed that no sooner had news of the events begun to unfold than Red Cross volunteers were out in force, rattling tins at the local shops, giving up their holiday time trying to make a difference in support of people far away. It was quite remarkable how quickly they were out there, active and involved. All credit to them. It was just a small part of an outpouring of financial and emotional generosity which has marked the Australian public’s, and I think the world’s, response.

Eerily, in the hours which followed the impact of the tidal waves, I, like many others who were near the WA coast, witnessed unusual wave patterns—tidal movements coming in and out within a matter of minutes. It was just a tiny ripple, I suppose, of the much more terrible tidal event to our north. This demonstrated to me just how fortunate we in Australia were to be spared the impact of the tsunami. It also reminded me of how different things could have been for us had the earthquake happened in a different part of the Indian Ocean.

According to the Australian Council for International Development, aid organisations in this country so far have received $239 million in donations. The response and the generosity has come from all areas of our society—from the Red Cross collectors in Dunsborough to families, businesses, unions and groups of employees in workplaces around the country; from the people who organised the Wave Aid concert, the Tsunami Cricket Match and the Reach Out to Asia telethon. So many Australians have given their time, their money and their tears. We are a better society for their generosity and their response.

We are also grateful to those many people who, through their work and personal sacrifices, have given such a fine response to this tragedy—the military and law enforcement personnel engaged in recovery and reconstruction; the public servants who gave up their holidays to coordinate Australia’s response; and the doctors, nurses and other Australian professionals who have been so quick to respond and so generous with their skills. I think all of us would have been moved by the images on our TVs of Australian Defence personnel and others restoring basic services like water and providing medical assistance. I know a number of the senior Australian Army officers involved; I met many of them when they were in Timor in a similar operation. They do their service and Australia proud.

I also saw the professionalism and dedication of so many Australian public servants reflected in the briefings we received from the various government agencies involved which reflected the wider work going on. It is not very often that Australian public servants get a good rap and I am one of those who are prepared to give them a hard time at estimates committees, but I think the way the Australian Public Service responded was a great credit to them. Unfortunately sometimes it is those in uniform at the front end who get the credit, but I think this is one of those occasions when both Commonwealth and state public servants responded with all the other agencies in a way that did them great credit.

Representing the Labor Party, I had the opportunity to visit the embassies of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand in the aftermath of this tragedy and it was clear to see the appreciation those countries had for the emotional and humane response of the Australian people. I also heard of their appreciation of the Australian government’s willingness to listen and respond to their needs rather than to tell them what they needed. Our nation’s concerns at the events on Boxing Day were symbolised in the National Day of Mourning and Reflection on 16 January. On that day I attended a ceremony at City Beach in Perth. Ethnic and religious leaders were there, along with many thousands of people wishing to show their support for the victims and to make sense of what had happened. On this occasion, as at many other times over the past few weeks, I was impressed by the compassion and the solidarity of such a wide cross-section of the Australian people.

I would also like to express the support of the ALP for the government’s response to the tsunami. The government has followed the lead of the Australian people and acted swiftly, effectively and generously. With the initial relief package of $60 million and then through the $1 billion aid package to Indonesia, the government has added another chapter to the story of compassion that we have seen in this country over recent weeks.

The Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development is the biggest single aid package in Australia’s history. We commend the Prime Minister and the government for this action. It not only represents the wishes of the Australian people but also provides an opportunity to build vital relationships between Australia and Indonesia. At a time when there are forces which fuel mistrust and animosity in our region, this package is an example of our commitment to our shared destiny and our shared humanity. On a human level, of course, it is the right thing to do. The aid package is not the end of the story when it comes to Australian efforts to provide assistance to those in need and to share more equitably the advantages we enjoy. It is not the end of the story, but it is an expression of what can be achieved when we have the will. We support the government in its response to this tragedy.

I would also like to mention the work being done by the disaster victim identification teams in Thailand—I see that Senator Ellison, the Minister for Justice and Customs, is in the chamber. These teams are made up of federal and state police officers working in cooperation with local officials and DFAT staff. From the comprehensive briefings given to us it appears that there have at times been 106 team members deployed in Thailand, working on 14-day rotations. Their knowledge and expertise have been employed in the disaster to ensure the best possible identification process. I must say, I did not seek to be briefed on the details of their work. It is a most gruesome and challenging task and not one which I would wish to volunteer to help with, but we really do appreciate the efforts they make. It is not easy work, and we extend our appreciation and support to all those officers and other personnel involved in that difficult task, because it is obviously important for the families that the work is carried out.

One of the things that struck me most from the briefings we received about the whole response was that so much experience had been gained in Bali that was put to good use in the tsunami. So, out of every terrible event, something good comes. One of the features of the Australian response was the ability to have learnt from the Bali experiences: for agencies to be better prepared and to be able to coordinate better. So, while in some ways it is a terrible thing that they have had that experience, it was no doubt central to their capacity to respond to the tsunami.

It is incumbent on us in political life to ensure that positive change is built on the experiences of the past. One way in which we can do this is by establishing systems to lessen the effects of similar events, should they be repeated in the future. Labor believes that Australia can make a significant contribution to the development of an Indian Ocean early warning system. We could contribute through facilities such as the Australian National Seismograph Network and the Alice Springs Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station, as well as through the significant scientific expertise we have in Australia. Such a project could be some small memorial for those who have died. Projects such as this, the government’s aid package and the response of the Australian public build much needed understanding in our international environment.

I hope that we can continue to create positive steps out of the horror which affected so many on Boxing Day. On behalf of my Labor colleagues in the Senate, I extend our thanks again to all those in our community—our police and service personnel, our public servants, medical and other professionals—and the organisations and businesses who got behind the effort. I reaffirm our support for the Australian government’s actions. I repeat most particularly our heartfelt condolences to the millions who have lost loved ones and those Australian families who mourn. We remember those who have lost children, parents, brothers, sisters and friends, for whom the rebuilding may take a lifetime.

Before I bring my remarks to a conclusion, I just want to make a couple of other comments. This is a motion the government has moved in relation to the tsunami disaster but, as you would be aware, over the break since the parliament last sat a number of terrible events have occurred in addition to the tsunami. We were not clear today as to what the government intended to do, but I do not want to sit down without making some reference on behalf of the Australian Labor Party to condolences, in particular to those families who have lost loved ones in the South Australian bushfires in January. As if the tsunami had not been enough, we then experienced those terrible fires, where nine people were killed. It was a terrible disaster, and the stories of how some of them died really touched all of us. Many others were injured and we wish them the best for their recovery.

Terrible devastation was done. These were the worst fires since the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983, when 75 people were killed. It was a significant tragedy for Australia. I am sure Canberrans in particular are much more aware these days of the terrible havoc that bushfires can cause, although Acting Deputy President Lightfoot, Senator Ellison and I are well aware of the terrible threat they are, as we had serious bushfires in Perth over the period as well. But the South Australian bushfires were another terrible tragedy and on behalf of the Australian Labor Party I want to extend our condolences to the families of those who died.

On this rather sombre note—I have been told Senator Ellison may be saying something later in the day—I want to formally make note of the death of Adam Dunning, an officer of the Australian Federal Police who was killed while on a peacekeeping mission in Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Adam was a former member of the army, had served in East Timor and had volunteered to serve in the Solomons. His death was a terrible tragedy.

The AFP has been deployed along with the Australian military to the Solomons with the support of this parliament—certainly with the support of the Australian Labor Party—and we take his death as a great blow. We take very seriously our responsibilities in the deployment of Australians to serve their country overseas and to go into trouble zones. Adam paid the ultimate price for serving his nation. I want to extend our condolences to the family of Adam Dunning, express our regret at his death and extend our condolences to other members of the AFP.

I wrote to Mr Keelty on behalf of the opposition, and Ms Macklin, then acting leader, attended the funeral, but, as we are dealing with the tragedies that have occurred in the last few months, I wanted to make special note of our sorrow at the death of Adam Dunning and commend the work that he performed in the Solomons and that of the AFP, who continue to serve there in most difficult circumstances. As I said, I think the parliament must accept a great responsibility for the fact that Adam was in harm’s way, serving his country at the request of this parliament. It is certainly important that we recognise the sacrifice he made on behalf of all of us, helping to bring stability and peace to our region and assisting the Solomons in their recovery. With those words, I wish to formally support the motion moved by Senator Hill in relation to the tsunami. I hope that we do not have ever again nearly as tragic a Christmas and New Year period as Australia and its region have experienced. I formally support the motion.