12 October 2022

At about 11pm on October 12, 2002, the first of three explosions detonated in the Bali tourist district of Kuta. Travellers and locals alike were enjoying the balmy night at Paddy’s Bar and Sari Nightclub before the attacks were carried out.

The horrific event brought ordinary Australians face to face with the reality of terrorism.

Twenty years on, we remember the 202 people who tragically lost their lives because of this abhorrent act. Of these 202 people who were murdered, 88 were Australians. This number represents the single largest loss of Australian life due to terrorism.

Individually, it represents 88 unique Australians, each with their own story, their own experience, and their own family and friends left behind trying to make sense of this tragedy.

As soon as the smoke cleared, Aussie government agencies leapt into action. The Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police were deployed almost immediately to evacuate people and provide investigative support.

But some of the unsung heroes were that of the Centrelink (now Services Australia) social workers. Services Australia has a long history of supporting everyday Australians through crisis. It’s the largest employer of social workers in the country, with more than 650 staff supporting hundreds of people daily.

In the immediate aftermath, the team of social workers were engaged to support the victims and their families. Centrelink established a 24-hour phone line for support, and offered financial assistance for those impacted.

The social workers built relationships with those struggling with the unimaginable trauma and grief this shocking act of evil had inflicted on their lives. Social workers supported families through the most confronting and heart-wrenching experiences, including the terrible need to identify their loved ones.

Amid the chaos and fear on the ground, the Services Australia social workers were an absolute pillar of strength for the families and friends of those who lost their lives. This strength and wraparound support has continued over the past 20 years.

I had the privilege to hear about one such staff member, Desley Hargreaves. Desley led the social work response, and was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2003 for her outstanding support.

Desley and her team were deployed to Bali in 2003 to support survivors through the terrorists’ criminal trials. Those social workers told me they were in awe of the resilience shown by the families, and their ability to calmly face the terrorists during court proceedings.

The shared grief between Australians and Indonesians is still felt today.

During the trials, the social workers were able to connect Australian families with Balinese people impacted by the bombings. Indonesians impacted included staff from hospitals, those who helped on the night of the attack, and families who had also lost loved ones. It helped our Australian families to talk with people who had gone through the same pain and trauma.

The social work team was also deployed to support affected families through the first four anniversaries of the attacks, and in 2012 for the 10-year commemoration.

This 20th anniversary may trigger difficult memories and suppressed emotions for survivors and families.

While it’s no easier today, those impacted will once again have the support of the Services Australia social workers. The team travelled to Bali over the weekend to continue to lend emotional support to those who have been through the unthinkable.

Since 2002, Services Australia’s social workers have supported people through several terrorist attacks and natural disasters, including the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the London bombings.

Most recently, staff assisted DFAT with Australia’s largest humanitarian airlift operation of Afghan refugees. At every step, no matter how difficult, Services Australia’s social workers are there.

On this incredibly difficult day, our hearts are with the survivors, the first responders, and the families of those 88 Australians who lost their lives. Not all heroes wear a uniform. I’m incredibly proud of the support Services Australia staff continue to provide, and while I cannot fathom what those affected by the attacks have been through, know we stand with you today, and every day.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 12 October 2022.