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SPEECH: Defence Facilities – Chemical Contamination

Senator BURSTON (New South Wales) (15:47): I rise today to discuss the need to remediate water supplies contaminated by the long-term use of firefighting foams containing perfluorinated chemicals, PFAS, and to compensate those affected. The No. 1 priority of any government is to protect its citizens. However, what is happening now is that the very department that is meant to protect us is doing the exact opposite. I have raised this urgent issue on behalf of the residents affected by the contamination leaching from the RAAF base at Williamtown in New South Wales on a number of occasions in this place, including in my first speech, where I said:

“Another example of disconnect between rulers and ruled in Australia is the Defence bureaucracy’s treatment of communities adversely affected by Defence Force contamination of their groundwater by toxic fire-fighting foam. Groundwater has been poisoned at bases in Williamtown in New South Wales and Oakey in Queensland, as well as another 16 sites around Australia. Residents are desperate. They cannot sell their properties as they are now worthless. They are exposed to potential severe medical complaints. And the Defence authorities? They do not listen. Reports show that the ADF knew of the problem as early as 2003 and failed to act. Its statements on the matter express more concern about bad press than about the health of local residents, who are unable to eat locally grown produce or use bore water. Why this indifference?”

My first speech was more than 16 months ago. After meeting with ministers and writing to ministers imploring action to be taken, nothing has changed, although, according to a Four Corners report last year, it appears that Defence knew about the concerns with PFAS as far back as 1987, rather than 2003 as I mentioned in my first speech.

Last year, I wrote to Senator McGrath, who was heading up the so-called task force to oversee the whole-of-government response to PFAS, asking for the government’s response to the 8 July 2017 article in the Newcastle Herald titled ‘Cabbage Tree Road cancer figures “mind-boggling”‘. The response from Senator McGrath was extremely disappointing, to put it mildly, especially considering that on the same day I received his response there were revelations in the same newspaper that a 49th person with cancer had come forward, who had lived on Cabbage Tree Road at Williamtown, just south of the RAAF base. When I read Senator McGrath’s response, which included the line, ‘There is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects,’ I almost fell off my chair. According to that same newspaper article in July last year, there is a report by a Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health professor that indicates that PFAS chemicals can suppress the body’s immune system.

I’m livid at the lack of action and compassion being shown by this government to the communities surrounding the RAAF Williamtown base, in Oakey, and now in Katherine in the Northern Territory, which are severely affected by this PFAS contamination. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has offered a number of solutions to the government for funding the work on remediation, plus voluntary buyouts, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

While I’ve been scathing of the coalition government’s inaction on this issue, the Labor Party is just as guilty of turning a blind eye. Last year, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon moved a motion calling on the federal government to urgently commence a process of voluntary buyouts of affected properties and develop a plan to clean up contamination from the Williamtown RAAF base, and on the New South Wales EPA to re-examine the current boundaries of the Williamtown investigation area and investigate reports of extensive contamination outside the current boundaries. It’s not often that One Nation agrees on anything with the Greens, let alone votes with them. However, the disaster that is PFAS contamination, which is severely affecting the community around the Williamtown RAAF base, is above politics.

I spoke in support of the motion on behalf of the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation senators and the affected communities, and we then all voted with the Greens senators to pass the motion in the Senate. While I expected the government to vote against the motion, I was shocked to see Labor senators stay in their seats and vote with the government against the motion, especially considering what had been said in the media by both the Labor member for Paterson, Meryl Swanson, and the state Labor member for Port Stephens. All Ms Swanson wants to do is gallivant around the world on the taxpayer dollar rather than fight for her constituents. Late last year, there was another motion put by the Greens on this issue. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation would have supported the original motion, but it seems that it was watered down so Labor would support it and give some cover to their local MPs, who are coming under pressure to tell the community what they will do if they win the next election.

Like the government, Labor is all talk on this issue. On the Four Corners program last year, it was discovered that there was a report back in 1987 detailing concerns about the impact of PFAS on the then proposed base at Tindal, two years before it was opened by the Labor government. A Defence spokesman on the program also admitted that they should have warned the residents surrounding the Williamtown RAAF base that PFAS was leaching onto their properties in 2012. Who was in government in 2012? That’s right—the Labor Party. It seems either that defence ministers since 1987 have some explaining to do or that the department has kept those defence ministers in the dark. I’m not sure which is worse.

With the federal election due as early as August this year and current polling suggesting that Labor could be back in government, I call on the Labor Party to come up with a concrete policy for these poor souls living with this issue day in and day out. That being said, the response by the government to the motion that passed the Senate late last year, which was tabled last week by Senator McGrath, was ordinary to say the least.

I have consistently been calling for the government to immediately start the process of voluntary buyouts to help those affected residents get on with their lives. As I suggested in a question to the defence minister late last year, at the very least the government should immediately set up a fund similar to the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. Whilst I know it may be a drop in the ocean compared to what the residents need, at least it may alleviate the immense financial burden these residents are under and show them that the government does care about them.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has been urging action on this matter since before the last federal election. I’m in ongoing discussions with our leader, Senator Pauline Hanson, who has a similarly affected community up at Oakey in Queensland, on what action we can take to pressure the government to act. Unfortunately, it may be time for our senators to repeat what we did to get the code of conduct for the sugar industry before this government is willing to do something tangible for those affected by this contamination.