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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 53

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (4:07 PM) —Certainly I wish to associate myself with the remarks made by Senators Hill and Evans in relation to the motion before the Senate dealing with the tsunami disaster which we experienced in our region during the break after the last rising of parliament. Senator Evans also mentioned the death of Adam Dunning, and I will be placing on the record my remarks at a later stage in relation to that. Today my remarks in relation to the tsunami disaster in particular go towards the men and women who did, and are doing, such a fantastic job in disaster victim identification. When the enormity of this disaster became apparent, we had an immediate response from the Australian Federal Police and CrimTrac, our federal agency which manages the database for fingerprints and DNA.

At the request of the Royal Thai Police, the Australian Federal Police responded on 28 December, sending a multijurisdictional assessment team consisting of 18 personnel. Since then a total of 105 Australian personnel have been deployed to Thailand in relation to disaster victim identification. I want to acknowledge police officers from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania, all of whom have served in the most difficult circumstances in relation to disaster victim identification. As Senator Evans said, much experience was gained, unfortunately, during the period of time after the Bali bombing. Of course, in any disaster one of the things you have to look to, apart from the welfare of those who have survived the disaster, is the speedy identification of victims, done with accuracy so that certainty can be established as to the loss of life. This is essential for those who are left behind, such as loved ones.

Australia led the way in disaster victim identification. Up to 30 different countries, and more than 400 people, have been represented in this international response. Australian police were heavily involved in setting up what is now called the Thailand tsunami victim identification centre, where all the ante-mortem and post-mortem information is collected and compared to identify the deceased. The situation was very difficult because there were many visitors from many different nations who perished as a result of this disaster. That of course made the identification of these people and locals all the more difficult.

In Australia, the Australian Federal Police established a 24-hour forensic major incident room in Canberra to coordinate the Australian DVI response to this incident. This has included staff from missing persons units from all state and territory police services. The Australian Federal Police also used their family liaison officers to continue to discuss the DVI process with families of the victims. They did such a magnificent job in relation to the victims of the Bali bombing and were called upon to replicate that commitment and the great work that they did, and they have continued to do that.

Strict controls have been put in place to ensure that a person is correctly identified. This is normally done through primary identifiers such as dental records, DNA and fingerprints. Secondary identifiers such as property, wallets, tattoos and personal items can also be used, but there must be two secondary identifiers or they must be used in conjunction with a primary identifier. Of course, the Australian Federal Police brings considerable expertise to bear in this regard. The advantage, if you could put it that way, that has come from this disaster, from this adversity, is that yet again we are seeing our officials working so closely with officials in the region and building those relationships. Hopefully this will not be relied upon in the future in relation to any other disaster, but should one occur then we will have an even more strengthened relationship with the officials in our region. I think it is a great tribute to those involved that this has developed.

I mentioned CrimTrac. It became apparent very soon after the disaster that victim identification was going to be a crucial issue. I spoke to the director, Jonathan Mobbs, who responded immediately with CrimTrac putting into place the measures necessary to assist the Australian Federal Police. Indeed, the director of CrimTrac led a delegation to Thailand between 22 and 26 January and they agreed to Interpol’s formal request to supply an automated fingerprint identification system. That was done on 7 January and it was operational by 10 January. CrimTrac staff have been heavily involved with the set-up of the fingerprinting DVI process in Thailand since arriving onsite on 8 January, and I believe they have played an essential role in the whole DVI process.

The response from the Australian Federal Police, the state and territory police, and CrimTrac has been outstanding. We saw the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, accompanied by Police Commissioner Keelty, attending the region very shortly after the disaster occurred. This signified the immediate response that we saw from Australian officials. I want to pay tribute to the officials who gave up their time to respond so speedily and efficiently to this disaster. Indeed, Senator Hill has covered, more than adequately, the role of the ADF, but I also want to pay tribute to the role that they played. Both Senators Hill and Evans have also paid tribute to the Australian public. The public really exhibited the fine qualities of the Australian character: when we see a friend in trouble, we go to their aid. I think it was typical of Australians that we saw such an outstanding response to this disaster from the Australian community.

At this stage we look to have lost 18 people from Australia and there are grave concerns for nine more. It was thought at one stage that the number would be many more. Our heartfelt condolences and sympathy go out to the loved ones of those who have perished and, in particular, to those in Australia who have lost loved ones as a result of this tsunami disaster. I must say that I think the work that has been done by Australian officials in the region, and in those areas which have suffered such great loss of life, has resulted in lessening even further loss of life.

Finally, you and I, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot, are both Western Australians. We come from a state, as does Senator Evans, which has its seaboard facing the ocean in which this disaster occurred. I see that Senator Webber is here too. She is from Western Australia as well. We in Western Australia saw a minor tidal surge as a result of this. But it brought home to us how things might have been very different had this disaster occurred in a different way. If mother nature had caused an earthquake in another way, the effects could have been felt differently. You have to remember that the effects of this disaster were felt on the east coast of Africa, which is on the other side of the Indian Ocean. We were very lucky indeed that Australia was not affected by this directly. I think that, as a neighbour in the region, it was the least we could do to respond in the way that we did.