Payments to support victims of overseas terrorism

Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently announced that victims of past overseas terrorist attacks would be entitled to an Australian Victim of Terrorism Overseas Payment (AVTOP), worth up to $75,000. The AVTOP was created in 2012 under the Gillard Government. Many of those affected by previous attacks have received some form of assistance from the Australian Government including coverage of medical costs and counselling/rehabilitation—the AVTOP provides a new formal mechanism for delivering monetary assistance. While there is strong community support for the scheme, a number of issues have been raised in regards to its design.

How the payment works  
The AVTOP is a one-off, lump-sum payment intended to provide financial assistance to those affected by a ‘declared overseas terrorist act’. The following events have been declared as overseas terrorist acts under the Social Security Act 1991:
  • 2001 September 11 attacks in the United States
  • 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia
  • 2005 bombings in Bali, Indonesia
  • 2005 bombings in London, United Kingdom 
  • 2006 bombings in Dahab, Egypt
  • 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India
  • 2009 hotel bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia and
  • 2013 armed assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
Under the Social Security Act, to qualify for an AVTOP, an individual must have been in the place where the terrorist attack occurred and have been harmed as a direct result (a primary victim), or be a close family member of a person who died as a result of the terrorist act within two years of the attack occurring (a secondary victim). Close relatives of those involved in the commission of the attack cannot qualify for the payment. To qualify, an individual must be a permanent Australian resident on the day the attack occurred. The Attorney-General can make a determination so that certain non-residents may qualify—for example, expatriate Australian citizens resident at the site of the attack.
While the maximum amount of the payment is $75,000 (based on the amount available under state and territory victims of crime schemes), lesser amounts may be paid. Amounts are determined according to factors such as the extent of injuries, the impact of the attack on primary and secondary victims’ lives and the circumstances in which injuries or death occurred (such as whether victims ignored travel advice from the Australian Government on the high risk of a terrorist attack in the place the attack occurred). A person may receive multiple AVTOPs where they are considered a primary and secondary victim (i.e. where they were harmed by the attack as well as losing a close family member).
Although the Prime Minister referred to the AVTOP as compensation, the Social Security Act explicitly states that it is not to be treated as being a payment of compensation or damages.
Previous assistance
The Australian Government previously provided some form of assistance to victims of all the overseas terrorist attacks covered by the Prime Minister’s determination. This assistance was primarily provided through ex gratia payments—these are payments determined by the Prime Minister and/or Cabinet on a case-by-case basis with no pre-set criteria or upper limit. In 2006, the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment (the AGDRP) was introduced, primarily to replace the use of ex gratia payments to victims of natural disasters in Australia. The AGDRP provides a one-off payment of $1000 per adult and $400 per child and was used to support victims of the Mumbai attacks in 2008 (on top of assistance for out-of-pocket medical costs and funeral/memorial costs).
The Senate committee inquiry into the legislation which created the AVTOP heard a range of concerns in regards to the design of the new payment. Among the issues raised was the focus of the new payment on victims of terrorism, as opposed to other serious crimes, as well as the lack of any criteria for an event to be declared an ‘overseas terrorist act’. The concern is that victims of smaller incidents or incidents where Australians/Westerners are not the explicit target will miss out on the assistance offered by the AVTOP. The Attorney-General’s Department’s submission to the inquiry emphasised that the lack of criteria allows for greater discretion in determining relevant incidents and the AVTOP is not intended to be a compensation scheme for all kinds of criminal injuries suffered abroad. Concerns were also expressed at the amount of AVTOP that is payable, with some believing it should be a much higher amount, and whether victims who had received other forms of assistance from the Commonwealth would receive a lower payment.
The assistance provided by the AVTOP will be welcomed by all those who were harmed or lost loved ones in terrorist attacks but it remains to be seen whether this mechanism is the best way of offering financial assistance to victims. The capped amount and the discretion to pay lesser amounts may cause difficulties in the future—particularly if an appeal is made against the amount assigned to a particular victim, where a reduced amount is paid because government travel advisories applied to the location of the attack, or when the amount appears paltry relative to the needs of those harmed. The question of what particular incidents will be declared as terrorist acts and the scope of the payment will also be a potential source of future controversy.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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