Standing up for Canberra

Flight MH17

It is with a heavy heart—a heavy heart I share with my colleagues, who have made some incredibly compelling and deeply thoughtful speeches this morning—that I rise to pay my condolences to the 298 victims who lost their lives on flight MH17, including 38 Australians and one Canberran.

The shooting down of MH17, as has been acknowledged over the last month or more and by my colleagues today, was a horrific act. It was a violent act. It was an unimaginable crime. It was also a timely reminder that although we here in Australia live on a peaceful island nation, we are not isolated from the horrors of war that occur in this world. In an instant, war and conflict can reach out and touch every one of us.

This horrific crime shocked our nation, but it also united us. Before I talk about how it has united Australians, and particularly the Canberra community, I want to acknowledge the Canberra victim, Liliane Derden. She was a 50- year-old mother of two daughters, Cassandra and Chelsea. She was the youngest of four brothers and four sisters who grew up in Belgium and moved to Australia in 1989. When the flight was shot down over the Ukraine Liliane was on her way back to Canberra via Perth after visiting her siblings in Belgium and travelling with her daughter Chelsea. Liliane was a Public Servant. She worked for the National Health and Medical Research Council, which issued a statement calling her a valued colleague and friend. There were many heartfelt memorials to Liliane when the news came that she was on that MH17 flight. She was a dedicated Public Servant and a valued team member and she made a significant contribution to Australia's health and medical research.

I also want to acknowledge the six victims who were on their way to Melbourne for the International AIDS Conference. We saw the response of those who were awaiting their arrival in Melbourne for that major international conference. It absolutely shocked the Melbourne community and particularly the AIDS and HIV community and all those who were attending. They were six world-leading activists, researchers and international communications experts. These were people who had made a significant contribution over many, many years. They had dedicated many years of their lives to improving the situation for HIV and AIDS sufferers, raising awareness about what these sufferers were going through and the whole notion of HIV and AIDS and, most importantly, trying to come up with a cure for this disease. Those six victims who were on that flight made a significant contribution with respect to this dreadful disease.

As I mentioned, Australia, the world and Canberra were united in their grief over this tragic crime. It was unexpected and the circumstances were surreal—almost unspeakable and incomprehensible. The world united in its grief, and what particularly moved me was the fact that the Canberra community reached out its hand particularly to the Dutch community here. I saw the Dutch ambassador at a number of occasions during the period when these memorial services were being held. She was deeply moved, as was her government and the Dutch community, by the level of support she was receiving not only from the Canberra community but from the Australian community as a whole. On the Sunday afternoon after this horrific event occurred, I went for a walk past the Dutch embassy. On the stark granite walls at the front of the embassy was a mountain of flowers, little teddy bears and tributes and cards from people who were overwhelmed in their grief and their sympathy for the Dutch victims and also the Australian victims. It was a lovely gesture. There were lots of little teddy bears and angels, lots of teddy bears with hearts and lots of toys that had been dear to Canberra families and Canberra children. They had reached out in their compassion by giving them something quite heartfelt and close to them and shared in their grief. It was deeply moving to see those tributes out the front of the Dutch embassy—and I am sure they were not just from Canberrans but also from people right throughout Australia and possibly the world who wanted to share their grief with the Dutch community, who bore the heaviest loss.

Canberrans also commemorated those who passed, those who suffered, those who lost their lives in this dreadful tragedy by sharing their concerns with the families through a range of memorial services. One of them, again deeply touching, was at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Lyneham. It was a beautiful service attended by the diplomatic community, as well as the Ukrainian community from across Canberra and the region. The church is very traditional, with icons all around the quite small space. What really struck everyone who attended that beautiful service was the haunting music. They had brought together a number of choirs from the Catholic community and the Orthodox community in Canberra. The choirs had not actually rehearsed together. They probably had five minutes beforehand to share what they were going to do. They sang the most deeply haunting and beautiful music in tribute to those who lost their lives on the flight and their loved ones. This deeply moving commemoration of the victims of this tragedy was beautifully subdued and haunting because in the centre of the church they had 298 candles marked out in the sign of the cross.

On the national day of mourning, I also attended a service in my electorate at the multi-faith church in Barton. That service was a subdued affair. It only went for a very short period of time. It allowed the Jewish community, the Anglican community, the Catholic community, the Hindu community—a range of communities from across Canberra—to come together to make tributes and to leave some sort of message showing their concern for the families, expressing their sadness at the loss of all the people from throughout the world—young lives, people whose bright futures were cut off unnaturally in a very short and very cruel manner, and small children. Eighty children died in this dreadful tragedy. It deeply touched the world.

Before I close, I would like to acknowledge the work and commitment of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff, the AFP and the defence personnel who travelled to the crash site, led by the wonderful former Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. I would also like to acknowledge the work and the wonderfully bipartisan approach adopted by the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow foreign minister during this tragedy. This is what is required to unite the world. I commend all those politicians for showing such united leadership.

I also want to touch on the fact that, to a very, very small level, I understand some of the agony the families may have gone through while waiting for news. My dear friend Liz O'Neill died on the Garuda flight that ran off the runway a number of years ago in Yogyakarta. It was agony waiting to find out whether she was on that flight. I remember a day or two after, when we still had not heard whether she was on that flight, thinking possibly she had escaped the flight, that she had got away. Then there was the agony of waiting for DNA results and for the return of the body. With Liz, the DNA results were returned after a number of days and the body was returned after about a week. We had confirmation that she was on that flight probably within about 24 hours.

My heart just goes out to those families. Can you imagine what it is like waiting, wondering if your loved one is actually on that flight and then finding out that they were actually on it? Then there is the agony that they have endured for weeks waiting for the DNA results, waiting for the confirmation that it was actually their loved one and then waiting—still waiting in many cases—for the bodies to be returned home. The agony is just beyond imagining and my heart does go out to all of them for the suffering that they have endured. This is a tragic situation; it is an incomprehensible situation. It is made all the more tragic by the tension in the region—the families are going through all this grief and uncertainty and fear, and they also have got that tension in the region and all those geopolitical strategic dynamics as backdrop.

Before I close I want to touch on the speech that Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans made to the UN Security Council. I think it resonated with everyone who heard it. Just extracts were played in the media but it was an incredibly powerful speech. It was a raw speech but it was a real speech at a time when people were just trying to understand what was actually going on. I want to highlight two elements here because, having experienced, as I said, some uncertainty and having experienced the agony of waiting to find out what has happened to someone who has perished in a plane accident, I do, to some degree, understand the situation. To me this speech was so powerful in summarising the views and thoughts of the world. He said:

We are here to discuss a tragedy: the downing of a commercial airliner and the death of 298 innocent people. Men, women and a staggering number of children— 80 children— lost their lives, on their way to their holiday destinations, their homes, loved ones, their jobs or international obligations … Since Thursday, I have been thinking: how horrible must have been the final moments of their lives, when they knew the plane was going down. Did they lock hands with their loved ones, did they hold their children close to their hearts, did they look each other in the eyes, one final time, in a wordless goodbye? We will never know.

Then he went on to say—and I think this really resonated with the world in the fact that, as I said, these families were facing such tragedy, dealing with such deep raw emotion and grief against this dreadful tension in the region:

The last couple of days we have received very disturbing reports of bodies being moved about and looted for their possessions. Just for one minute … imagine that you first get the news that your husband was killed, and then within two or three days, you see images of some thug removing the wedding band from their hands.

To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains should be used in a— despicable— political game. I hope the world will not have to witness this again, any time in the future.

I think that everyone in this chamber and probably right throughout Australia—I know in Canberra—concurs with his views.

In closing, I offer my deepest sympathies to the families, the friends, colleagues and loved ones of the 298 victims whose lives were tragically cut short. I trust that the loved ones of the victims of flight MH 17 know that they are not alone in their grief. They have the full support and condolences of the Australian parliament, of the Australian people and of the Canberra community. May they rest in peace.

Download a copy of this speech.