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Williamtown: Questioning the role of Defence contractors in investigating contamination

On Monday, 4 December Lee directed the following questions to Defence Minister, Senator Payne, regarding contamination at the Williamtown RAAF base. 

Defence Facilities: Chemical Contamination Defence Facilities: Chemical Contamination

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:51): I direct my question to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. A representative of a major defence contractor, Aurecon Australia, at a summit on PFAS chemicals organised on behalf of the heads of EPAs in Australia and New Zealand, and the Australian government Department of the Environment and Energy, criticised the European Union's precautionary position on firefighting-foam contaminants. The Aurecon representative also made an inaccurate statement about the status of the contaminant PFOA in the Stockholm convention. Considering Aurecon is undertaking a major investigation into contamination at HMAS Albatross near Nowra and the RAAF base at Williamtown in New South Wales, do you agree that companies with contracts with Defence have a major conflict of interest when they are also asked to investigate contamination issues?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:52): I thank Senator Rhiannon for her question. I'm not aware of the statements that Senator Rhiannon says have been made by an Aurecon official. I am aware of the efforts that Defence is making in a number of locations around Australia—I think almost 23 environmental investigations at this point—which will take the PFAS investigation to the largest-ever, single national environmental investigation in this country, as you would be aware, Senator. I will, however, take any further aspects of the senator's question on notice and respond to her in due course.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, a supplementary question.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:53): Considering Aurecon has 539 contracts with the Department of Defence, as revealed at the March estimates, and considering Aurecon is responsible for waste management at many RAAF bases, how has your department investigated the role of the company in the contamination scandal that the Department of Defence is currently handling?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:53): Again, in terms of your language, Senator Rhiannon: you may refer to it in that way, but we know—and in fact, you know, if you are frank with the chamber —that this is a legacy contamination issue that the Australian government and a number of other international governments are handling. It doesn't only pertain to defence sites. It pertains to airports, and it pertains to sites used by rural fire services and a number of industry participants, particularly in the fuel area. I think there is a substantial way to go in the investigation process for all of those—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, on a point of order.

Senator Rhiannon: Yes, Mr President, I'm drawing your attention to the question of relevance. The question was: how has your department investigated the role of the company in the contamination scandal? It was not about what they've done. It was specifically about that company, and companies with contracts.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, I think the minister was addressing the other part of the question you raised. Again, I state that, if there is a preamble to a question, a minister is allowed to address that as well as the question asked at the end.

Senator PAYNE: There are, of course, thousands of contracts between Defence and a very large number of businesses in Australia. Senator Rhiannon, if I have anything further to add in relation to the Aurecon matter, I will take that on notice and bring that back to the chamber.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, a final supplementary question.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:55): Considering the Department of Defence has known about dangers associated with PFOS and PFOA since at least 2000, when will the government give impacted communities some certainty by acting on the recommendation of the 2015 Senate inquiry into the Williamtown contamination? It recommended: The Commonwealth government commit to voluntarily acquire property and land which is no longer fit for purpose due to PFOS/PFOA contamination … Why are you still dragging the chain?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:55): I would note that, as I said, this is the largest single national environmental investigation, as far as we are aware, in Australia's history. We are investing substantial resources in the investigation and decontamination of sites and will continue to invest in remediation and management activities as required. As the senator is well aware from her questions at estimates, the coordination of the whole-of-government response, including those matters the senator has raised, is being implemented through a task force in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the PFOS task force. That matter is being undertaken by them, and Defence will assist in any way that it can.

The PRESIDENT: Minister, have you concluded your answer?

Senator PAYNE: Yes.

Senator Rhiannon: On a point of order—

The PRESIDENT: There is no point of order on relevance if the minister has concluded her answer. There are other opportunities to pursue the matter.

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