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Motion: Questions without notice: take note of answers - Defence Facilities: Chemical Contamination

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:28): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Rice today relating to the contamination of Defence sites.

Around Australia there is a growing scandal, with contamination being found at more and more sites. People are living with upheaval in their lives because, all of a sudden, they've found that the vegetables that they thought they could grow and would make their families healthy are contaminated, that they shouldn't eat their eggs and that possibly there's contamination in the water that's used in so many ways in their daily lives.

But their lives are also in upheaval because of the way the government is handling this crisis. We saw this again from the way that Senator Cormann answered the question. Senator Rice put a very simple and very important proposition to him about the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle sets out that when you're uncertain of a situation you take the precaution. You don't allow people to be exposed to danger, and that is what is happening in this situation. The government tries to wriggle out of this by saying, 'We're supplying people with water.' But we need a lot more done to protect people than just supplying them with clean water.

The fact that the government has come up with a longitudinal study over four years reflects the problem people have at so many of these sites. There are about 16 in Victoria and dozens across New South Wales. We have heard about the situation in Katherine, where you feel that nobody should drink the water at all. What is this government doing? It is allowing people to just continue to try to hold their lives together while it comes up with something. Surely, the fact that the government says that there needs to be a study reveals that it's acknowledging that there could be a problem. Well, as there could be a problem, if the government is committed to the precautionary principle then it should be giving assistance to these people.

Remember how Williamtown played out. It was in October 2015 that we found out through estimates—and this was after I was tipped off by locals who were becoming extremely concerned about what they were hearing in that area—that the government had known about this problem for years. They admitted it. Then we were successful in getting an inquiry. The Senate supported an inquiry into the whole issue. There was a big investigation at Williamtown. But still, three years later, so many of the people of Williamtown tell me they just feel so demoralised and mental health issues are rising. A few have been able to leave, but many can't. Their lives are stranded. They are stranded because their property is worthless. There has been no compensation. Some of them have lost their livelihood as well as the value on their property. And this is what the government is inflicting on communities around the country, because it is not giving the leadership that's needed.

Remember that for the people who are eating contaminated food and living with contaminated water it's not their fault. They didn't know what was going on. They didn't know the levels of pollution coming off the local RAAF base or coming out of the airports because of firefighting programs. They didn't know—but the government now knows. What governments are for is to do the right thing by the public: provide the protection and provide the assistance. We have just not seen that at any stage.

Where the story gets even worse is when you look at what the Department of Health is doing—and the Department of Defence brings this back up to us time and time again when we ask about the impact of contamination. What the Department of Health is saying—and the Department of Defence relies on this—is that there is no consistent evidence that the toxic contaminants cause important health effects. Compare that with the US EPA. They've concluded that these chemicals are a human health hazard and that at high enough levels they can cause immune dysfunction, hormonal interference and certain types of cancers in humans. What a contrast! How irresponsible this government is in the way that it is acting. It is deeply shocking. There are groups coming from these communities—Williamtown being one of them—where they are taking class actions because they've given up on the government doing anything. But, meanwhile, it's hard for them to hold their lives together. I've had young families talking to me about their fears. They thought breastfeeding their baby would be the most wonderful thing and the best for baby. Now they are worried sick that maybe they did the wrong thing in how they were raising their children by feeding them what they thought were fresh vegetables and breastfeeding them. The government is responsible for this hardship. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

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