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Response: Firefighting foam contamination motion

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 14 Oct 2016

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:29): The Williamtown story of contamination has thrown the lives of so many people into uncertainty and disarray. It is actually a story that is repeated, we are learning, in many other areas around the country, and it really does underline why this government has to act urgently. People are living with possible health problems, the loss of property value and the inability to continue their lives. Some of them have lost their livelihood completely; fishing folk in and around Williamtown are an example of that. Each time I visit this area I find that the mental health of many of the local people is deteriorating, and it is understandable. When you have got your future ahead of you, and part of your future is where you live, your income, your property and home, and you are uncertain if you should even be living there but you cannot see any way out because your property now has no value, it clearly is incredibly alarming.

One of the saddest stories I heard was about a young couple who had decided to move from Sydney to this area to start their home. They liked the semirural lifestyle. She fell pregnant—after very much looking forward to starting a family—and then, while she was pregnant, the story of the contamination broke. She was then not sure if she should breastfeed the baby—if that was best, or if it was not best. Might she be poisoning her baby through her breast milk? These are the questions that people are asking themselves and that really underline that sense of insecurity that so many people are living with.

The banks are now becoming a big part of this story. The Commonwealth Bank has sent foreclosure letters to residents in Salt Ash, one of the areas affected by PFOS and PFOA contamination. We have heard from the Commonwealth Bank that it is not planning to foreclose—it has backed down on that, and it has said, 'Well, that was a bit of a mistake.' It is actually claiming that sending the letters was an administrative error. But anybody who has been involved in this crisis would have to be very sceptical of that claim.

The fact is that residents' homes have been devalued, residents have had difficulty getting bank loans, and resident have had difficulty selling. Many are begging the Department of Defence to buy them out. Again, that is something that has been repeated so often when I meet with locals at Williamtown, particularly because many of them went to the Senate inquiry that we had at the end of last year. That gave them some hope—because the Department of Defence have to turn up—that Defence would listen and then respond.

The government admits total responsibility. There is no wriggle room and no excuses. They admit that they have caused this contamination. So, understandably, people expect, 'Well, this is the government. They will do the right thing. They have admitted that they have made this very serious mistake and we are now living with contamination.' But there is nothing. The months keep rolling by. So this issue about the value of people's property and their future is becoming bigger and bigger.

ANZ, the Commonwealth Bank and NAB have all refused to offer new lending in the area known as the 'red zone'—the area that has been marked out as severely contaminated. There is a risk associated with these properties that the banks do not want to go near as they now have reduced value due to the high levels of contamination. So this is huge. Imagine how we would feel if we went home this weekend and we found that that was the situation for where we live—I guess most of us own our places—and then all of a sudden we could not get a loan and we could not sell our property. This is extraordinary. Who has caused it? In this case it was the government.

Real estate agents in the area have confirmed that they are struggling to sell properties. If the Department of Defence is responsible for the devaluation of the properties—and they are; we know that—then they are also responsible for ensuring that the affected residents are compensated for those property devaluations as well as for the loss of income, the health difficulties and the disruption that they have endured through no fault of their own.

Again, I want to underline, and I know I have said it but we need to keep saying it: the government has admitted that they are responsible. The local people, through no fault of their own, are now in this incredible situation—a situation of constant uncertainty. This is causing stress, anguish and, in many cases, depression. I have been very concerned with what some people are saying to me about what they think that they might have to do with their future. It is extremely alarming, and it goes back to this failure of government to deal with what is happening.

It is the obligation of the Turnbull government to sort this out with the banks. This is precisely what a government should do. They should put the public good first. The public good has been damaged here. They should put the public good first, and, as the banks are part of the problem, they should be helping sort that out.

It is also the obligation of the government to compensate for the huge financial losses that the residents are coping with. Again, that should be obvious. There was a clear recommendation from our Senate inquiry that the government start working on this. But nearly a year later—nothing. It is also the obligation of the government to provide free health tests to residents.

The government should be working with state agencies to remediate the contaminated land and water. It is absolutely critical that the government sets out a clear timeline detailing its plans for remediation. That remediation is critical for residents and also for workers at the base. The level of problems in this area really are mounting as this goes on. I have had many shocks and surprises, both in listening to residents and in hearing how the government is handling it. One was when I learnt that the government initially had no plans for remediation. Now that is not nearly as extensive as it needs to be.

I feel that the coalition government is dodging this issue. I found out, when I first asked questions about this in estimates last year, that the government has actually known about this for many years—certainly for much longer than the one year that the local people have known about it. The Department of Defence have known about it for years. International studies have been done. So it was in the literature. It had been reported. But again the local people had been left in the dark.

I am pleased to be able to speak on this. Sadly, I think we will have to come back to this time and time again. But the ball really is with the government. We know the problems banks have in ever doing the right thing by people. That is why the government needs to address the issue of how the banks are operating, as well as to take up their own responsibility to do health tests properly and not run these scam ways of doing them by saying, 'If somebody goes and pays for the health tests then they can get the money back.' Many of these people do not have that sort of cash, to be able to manage it in that way. So there is much that the government needs to do, and they really need to get cracking.

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