Cyclone Pam

I rise today to speak about the devastating impact that Cyclone Pam has had on Vanuatu, after the country was hit by a category 5 system on 13 and 14 March, and I thank the member for Kingsford Smith for moving this motion.

Cyclone Pam descended upon Vanuatu, Tuvalu and a number of other Pacific islands, battering them with 250 kilometre per hour winds and 320 kilometre per hour gusts, which caused widespread damage to infrastructure, impacting services such as electricity. There is a range of figures around at the moment of the tragic death toll. The latest I have heard is that 16 people have died as a result of Cyclone Pam. That is absolutely tragic.

The cyclone has affected more than 166,000 people, including 82,000 children across 22 islands in Vanuatu. And one of those affected is from Canberra. Canberra teenager Zoe Marshall was volunteering on Pentecost Island, working as a teacher for her gap year. During the cyclone, she took shelter with another volunteer and 11 children from the family she had been living with on the island. For days after the cyclone, Zoe and seven other Australian volunteers were unaccounted for, losing all contact with the outside world. The whole Canberra community was hoping and praying for her safety. In an interview with The Canberra Times, Zoe said, 'Running to the village during the storm was the most terrifying 20 minutes of my life' and:

'We walked back up the hill from the village where we'd been sheltering and it was just silent,' she said.

'There were trees through houses, there were trees everywhere, coconuts and branches just all over the ground.'

This gives us just some insight into what the people in Vanuatu experienced during Cyclone Pam. Across the country, 50 to 90 per cent of homes have been damaged, leaving 65,000 people in need of shelter. Food, water and health services are also urgently needed.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the lack of shelter remains a key factor, as infants are falling sick because of overexposure to the sun. Aid organisations such as Care, Red Cross, UNICEF and World Vision are all responding to the disaster. I would like to acknowledge and commend those organisations and others who are working to assist those in need, including our wonderful AEF. I would also like to acknowledge and commend the volunteers, who are tirelessly giving up their time to help the situation in Vanuatu.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that, as of Sunday, its financial tracking service had recorded a total of US$10 million in contributions from foreign donors, including Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the European Commission. Labor support any efforts by the Australian government to give greater assistance to the people of Vanuatu. Australia has now provided more than $10 million to nongovernment organisations for Vanuatu. We are Vanuatu's biggest aid donor. The foreign minister has pledged long-term support, which I welcome. However, I would like to use this opportunity to talk about foreign aid more broadly.

It is events like Cyclone Pam that remind us of the critical need for aid funding. Australia is now at its lowest level of aid in modern history. We have fallen to 0.2 per cent of our national income and just in this last week we have seen further speculation that there could be more cuts to the aid budget that would embarrass Australia internationally. So we have to remember that while of course we are now providing aid to Vanuatu, it comes after very substantial cuts at the hands of this government, and those aid programs help the people of Vanuatu prepare for these sorts of disasters.

In closing, Vanuatu now has a huge task ahead of it to rebuild and repair following the devastation of Cyclone Pam. Vanuatu is a close friend and a close neighbour for us. We have got a strong history of providing support to Vanuatu for economic development and for disaster preparedness. While we commend the government for the aid it has given to date, it may be necessary to do more and we will be monitoring the situation in Vanuatu.

I also call on the government to rule out more cuts to foreign aid. All Australians are still very concerned for the people of Vanuatu and what they have suffered after Cyclone Pam, and our thoughts and condolences are with those who have lost a family member or friend.

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