House of Representatives Speech- Chile: Earthquake 2010

As Chair of the Australia/Chile Parliamentary Friendship Group I offer my condolences and, I am sure, the condolences of all members of this parliament to the people of Chile, as well as the Chilean community in Australia, for the damage and destruction that has been caused in that country by the recent earthquake. On 27 February, an earthquake registering 8.8 in magnitude occurred near the city of Concepcion, just over 300 kilometres south-west of the Chilean capital, Santiago. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history and caused devastation from the capital right through central Chile and into the south. There is very major damage in Concepcion and in other towns.

As Chair of the Australia/Chile Parliamentary Friendship Group I offer my condolences and, I am sure, the condolences of all members of this parliament to the people of Chile, as well as the Chilean community in Australia, for the damage and destruction that has been caused in that country by the recent earthquake. On 27 February, an earthquake registering 8.8 in magnitude occurred near the city of Concepcion, just over 300 kilometres south-west of the Chilean capital, Santiago. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history and caused devastation from the capital right through central Chile and into the south. There is very major damage in Concepcion and in other towns.

Chileans are a strong and resilient people. As floods and fires are for many Australians, earthquakes and tremors are a part of life for Chileans. But the fifth most powerful earthquake on record—since 1900—is one of the worst to have hit Chile and has left some areas of the country in ruins. Continuing earthquakes in the affected region since 27 February are described as ‘aftershocks’, which is technically right but understates their magnitude: some of these aftershocks are in themselves major earthquakes. Hundreds of people have perished and millions have been affected by this earthquake. With searches still in progress for missing people, the death toll is expected to rise. Much of Chile’s infrastructure and hundreds of thousands of homes and beautiful heritage architecture in many cities and towns have been damaged and destroyed in this disaster.

Thankfully, the damage and death toll have not reached the scale of devastation seen in Haiti earlier this year, despite the fact that the Chilean earthquake was stronger. Chile can thank its strongly designed buildings, well organised society and geographical nature for managing to limit the catastrophe to what it is. Coastal towns, in particular, have borne the brunt of the destruction, with tsunami waves crashing into the already earthquake-affected cities and towns.

For me, this disaster hit home at a personal level. I have deep ties and a great affection for Chile. One of my sons is currently in Chile on student exchange. Much to our relief, he is safe. I have fond memories of travelling and living in Chile with my wife and family, and to think of how this tragedy is affecting the whole Chilean community brings us much sadness.

Australia has a longstanding, close and warm relationship with Chile. At the beginning of the last century Chile was Australia’s major trading partner. Australia signed a free trade agreement with Chile in 2008, further strengthening the bonds between our two countries. Many wonderful Chileans came to Australia seeking refuge from the brutal military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. There are some 23,000 Chilean-born Australians who made their lives in Australia, and they are here to stay. They and their Australian-born children form a substantial Chilean-Australian community, and many of them live in the south-east of Melbourne, where my electorate is located.

In recent years, Chile has developed rapidly. Until the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the Chilean economy was growing strongly. I hope that this disaster, which has caused damage measured in the many billions of dollars, is a setback from which Chile can recover quickly and return to that path of growth. I have great faith that, with the assistance of nations like ours, the Chilean government and the new President, Sebastian Pinera, will rebuild the devastated areas and display the strength that the country needs at this time. I was very pleased to hear the immediate initial response from our government, announced by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, of $4 million in reconstruction assistance and $1 million in emergency assistance, which included the provision of tents, generators, stretcher beds and blankets. I also acknowledge the hard work that the Ambassador for Chile in Australia, Jose Luis Balmaceda, and the new Consul-General for Chile in Victoria, Diego Velasco-von Pilgrimm, are doing to keep the Chilean community in Australia up to date with the latest situation and to raise funds for the care of those affected in Chile as well as for the reconstruction effort.

I would also like to thank the Australian Ambassador in Chile, Virginia Greville, and the embassy staff for working around the clock to locate and contact Australians in Chile in the aftermath of the earthquake—according to the embassy, at the time of the earthquake there were thought to be some 400 Australians in Chile but it is likely that there would have been many more backpackers because, in recent years, Chile has become a very popular destination for young Australians travelling through South America. I can assure the ambassador Virginia Greville that for families like mine who have a loved one in Chile the work of the embassy is very much appreciated indeed.