“The unique contribution from Australia to relief of those hit by the tsunami disaster says a lot about our consciousness as a nation and of our ties and responsibilities in our region. It says more than any words about our place in the Asia Pacific.

Forget the debates about whether Australia is part of the Asian region or not. The tsunami and Australia’s reaction from the Howard Government has clearly demonstrated that Australia sees itself as carrying a special responsibility to South East Asia.

The disaster in the Indian Ocean after the earthquake off Aceh in Indonesia has devastated the coastlines of some of Australia’s nearest neighbours. The death toll continues to soar. Economies like the Maldives face ruin, disease threatens large areas of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Thailand.As Australians take in the enormity of the tsunami’s aftermath, one thing is clear. There is a particular and strong feeling in Australia about our closeness to the tragedy. The countries affected are very much part of our region and are of significance to Australia as trading nations. And many Australians belong to extended families in the region. Some have been reported mourning for numbers of lost relatives who live in the towns and settlements affected by the tidal waves.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said that as a rich and successful country, Australia must donate significantly to the aftermath relief operation in the Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy. Australia has responded uniquely, both in the aid it has pledged and the teams of workers it has sent to the stricken areas. It’s as if Australia has a particular interest and responsibility for a disaster not so far from its shores.

While, no Australian settlement was hit by the tsunami, parts of the coastline of Western Australia experienced something of the tidal upset in the Indian Ocean – a reminder of just how close our shores are to the continental shelf of Asia.

The news of the disaster also calls into question Prime Minister John Howard’s much quoted statement that Australians do not have to choose between their geography and their history. In the case of this week’s tsunami disaster, geography has been paramount.

The catastrophe in the Indian Ocean is far from an Asia-only event. Many of the dead and missing holiday makers are from as far away as Russia and the Nordic countries. Sweden has calculated that 1500 of its citizens are missing, presumed dead.

An increasing number of Australians are being confirmed dead and hundreds are still unaccounted for. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has been working to contact some 5000 Australians who were in the areas worst affected by the tsunami at the time it hit in an attempt to determine just how many Australians might have perished.

Australia’s prompt and significant response has included sending seven teams of Australian medical specialists, some of whom worked in Bali after the terrorist attack in 2002, to places throughout the affected region, including one that will work with the World Health Organisation. The Prime Minister has canvassed the idea of Australia also setting up a field hospital and sending more helicopters.

Within two days of the tsunami tragedy, Australia committed $35 million in aid. The donation was praised by the US media which has drew unfavourable comparisons with the initial US contribution of $US35 million. The US and Europe have since increased their aid substantially.

In addition Australia is to join three other far larger nations – the USA, Japan and India – in a specially designated international group to co-ordinate the assistance program.

The pictures of the devastation are overwhelming. Each story of survival is a potential movie in itself. Some Australians have even been saved because they could swim so well they were at home in the ocean. And with Australian newspapers and airwaves filled with news of the tsunami, over days, Australia’s image as a leading player in the Asian region is further enhanced. Old arguments within Australia about its place in the region now very much answered by a reality check.”

Article published in The Canberra Times