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Response to Williamtown contamination Feb 5 deadline

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 7 Feb 2018

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:01): I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Last December, the Senate passed a most important motion calling on the Commonwealth, the Turnbull government, to respond to a whole number of issues to do with the Williamtown contamination. There was one very important aspect to it that set out that they needed to address the financial impacts on businesses and individuals.

The report is deeply shocking. It really shows how out of touch this government is. It's really quite ruthless and it's uncaring. It is also the latest insult from the Turnbull government. The report is vacuous. It goes for a few pages, but there is nothing of use there for the people of Williamtown. After looking at it you came to the conclusion that the Turnbull government has given up on working to solve the Williamtown crisis, which it has created, arising from the contamination coming from the RAAF base. When we debate this we need to remember that. The Department of Defence has admitted total liability for the toxic run-off that has been polluting that area for years.

A little bit of history underlines how shocking this report is. We found out publicly about the contamination in 2015, but through estimates questioning we came to realise that, in fact, the department had known for much longer but had not told the public. Then there was an inquiry we were able to get set up in 2015. But at every stage, the government has not done the right thing by the people of Williamtown. One of the things that is so shocking is that contamination continues to pour off the base. This is a base that's incredibly important for Australia's defence: $900 million has been put into this base to upgrade it for the Joint Strike Fighter planes.

I've been to the Williamtown area on many occasions, and often the locals have said to me: 'Just one of those planes would allow us to get our lives back on track.' What they mean is that if the government didn't go ahead with buying all the Joint Strike Fighters—just gave up on one—but put the money into the needs of the people of Williamtown, they could pay compensation or buy out the properties of people who have been told that they can't eat their vegetables and shouldn't sell their cattle or, if they were running a business, whose business may have collapsed. If people want to sell up, they can't, because property values have crashed.

A humane and caring government would work with these people to either help address their immediate concerns so they can stay there, because some want to. But in the case of those in the red zone, which has been identified as the most contaminated, it would work with them so they could get out, but there has been nothing. It would be the decent thing to do.

This report is disgraceful. The closest we get to any details about the financial impacts is where the government lists a number of banks and financial institutions that its task force has met with. There is nothing about the details of those meetings. There is no information about any recommendations. All it offers us is more excuses—excuses that try to make out that maybe this contamination isn't that bad for your health after all. This goes against much of the United Nations work and international health studies that have identified various cancers linked with this contamination.

Another thing adding to the stress of the local people is that the contamination hasn't stopped coming off the base. One of the things that is so extraordinary is that action hasn't been taken to clean up the pollution on the base itself. Now, I acknowledge it's difficult to manage this. It's a water-soluble chemical. It gets into the water. It gets into the soil. It is dispersed quickly. The knowledge and the ability is there to contain it and then treat this area, but that hasn't been done. Meanwhile, this base has been given a massive upgrade for the Joint Strike Fighter pilots. What a contrast it is. This becomes a state-of-the-art base to wage war while the local people's lives are being devastated. And 'devastated' is not a strong enough word. Today's report has added more uncertainty, more insecurity, more sadness and more loss of hope. That is what the government has delivered with the report before us today. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.



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