House debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006; Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2006

Second Reading

11:13 am

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Reconciliation and the Arts) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to address the Main Committee in the second reading debate on the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006 and cognate bill. I second the comments of the member for Bruce, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, concerning the history behind this legislation, which we support. I also second his comments about some of the clear omissions which Labor has identified and which are of some concern to the veteran community in Australia.

The date of 27 September marked the 50th anniversary of the British atomic nuclear tests at Maralinga, the Maralinga tests. There has been a 50-year history that those service personnel, British service personnel, the Indigenous people of that area and other Australians have had to suffer consequently. Maralinga has been a saga of epic proportions. I am very confident that, with the benefit of hindsight, when we start to consider the full history—which we are still in the midst of—by discussing this bill in this House, we will recognise that it marked a period of time when Australia had to wrestle itself from its colonial mentality, from its bureaucratic mentalities and from its lack of understanding of the actual emotional, physical and social conditions that service personnel, whether they are in wartime or involved in matters such as the tests, actually face.

Aboriginal people and Australian veterans together mark this 50th anniversary, because that is when their sorrows began. There are many legacies of the tests, but I think they mean that we have to think very carefully about expanding the nuclear industry in this country. We have to think very carefully about the way in which we involve the public in a consultation and participation process, which is the requirement of an open democracy, where we look at the storage of things like radioactive waste and the location where radioactive waste would be. It is true that the Maralinga site to some extent has been remediated, but that has been at great expense, and it has followed a number of efforts to remediate the site. The fact is that the impact of the tests is still being felt by the communities on whose lands these tests took place without their prior knowledge, without consultation and without any form of permission or acknowledgement, and the impact is being felt by them daily.

It is a fact that the Australian government under Prime Minister Menzies permitted the British government to develop a nuclear weapons program in Australia, because the British government felt that it was being denied the opportunity to compete in the development of nuclear weapons whilst the Americans and the Russians were proceeding forthwith, and that between 1952 and 1957 there were 12 major tests, including at Montebello and at Maralinga: the crashing of planes, and nuclear bomb detonations. There are the famous images of Australian servicemen and personnel turning their backs to the detonation and then, only moments later, walking onto the site. It is also a fact that the Australian government had paid little attention up until that time to the impact on the health of servicemen and on the Pitjantjatjara people of that region, who had started to show signs of exposure to the tests, with blindness, sores and cancers.

It is on the historical record that the Atomic Veterans Association and the Pitjantjatjara Council were the two organisations which campaigned actively and raised high levels of public support both in South Australia and through the rest of the country in order for a royal commission to be established to put pressure on the British government to meet the cost of the clean-up. In fact, that royal commission made its rulings under Jim McClelland in 1985. The commission found, amongst other things, that there were high levels of radioactivity and that, despite earlier assurances, the site had been contaminated and the clean-up that had been undertaken at the behest of the Australian government with the British government had not been adequate or satisfactory. One of those recommendations which I want to note briefly concerned the compensation for Aboriginal people who had been affected and exposed. The Maralinga Tjarutja people won a compensation award of some $13 million at that time.

For veterans it has been an equally difficult period. The McClelland royal commission did not have the opportunity to make a ruling on the impact and effect of exposure on the health of servicemen, despite the fact that I think there was clearly acknowledgement both during the commission and subsequently that Australian service personnel were, in effect, guinea pigs. And it is true that, subsequently, testing continues to identify and uncover the likelihood of cancers which these service personnel and others actually suffered.

The subsequent rehabilitation of the site has left about 120 square kilometres not considered safe for permanent occupancy but considered safe for access. The remainder of the site has been rehabilitated. Notwithstanding that, there were serious questions raised about whether the methods used to dispose of the waste were safe and adequate. Different technologies were used and shallow grave disposal was used in parts. Concerns have been raised subsequently as to whether this was the best disposal method for the waste there, but the fact remains that the site is in a remediated state.

It is important to now look at the pattern of involvement between governments, including the British and Australian governments, and the department and the veterans’ community who have brought this bill into the House. There is no doubt that the British used Australian troops as guinea pigs in the Maralinga tests and there is no doubt that there has been a long, complex and extremely frustrating process of studies, health surveys and consideration of the issues for the veterans concerned. The amount of cancer that people received, the kind of testing that is necessary and the identification of those materials, particularly ionising radiation, on those who were exposed—a whole range of complex radiological and radioactive issues—have been considered. There are contested and contentious views about the efficacy of the tests and studies that have been undertaken, and I will come to some of them in a minute.

The primary point that needs to be made is that at least 15,000 Australians and some 20,000 British personnel were exposed. Governments have a duty of care when personnel are exposed in a test of this kind. Given the higher incidence of cancers that have been observed amongst the service personnel and others who were at the site at the time, the probability of their cancers being in some way connected to that exposure is high.

The veterans have fought long and hard to get justice and they are still fighting today. I support that fight. This bill goes only some way to addressing their issues. Labor does believe that it is important to support the provision of non-liability treatment and certainly cancer testing for those eligible participants of the tests. The title of this bill is ‘Australian participants in British nuclear tests’; it should be ‘Australian veterans in British nuclear tests’. Veterans have had to withstand over the entire history of the Maralinga saga continual frustration of the processes to expedite their concerns about their health.

After enormous pressure on the government, particularly in this parliament and by the veterans, the nuclear veterans cancer and mortality study was set up in 1999. The study took some seven years. In the study and in the debate that led to the mortality study being introduced in 1999, we discovered both through the parliament and through the efforts of the press that Australians had been misled about the involvement of Australia in these tests. Prime Minister Menzies unilaterally decided that the tests could go ahead and the minister at the time, even in answering questions in this House, had not been informed.

There have been years of wrangling and argument over the design of the studies. A number of problematic issues were raised with the studies, including the identification of risk, incomplete records and the alteration of records on the site, which the member for Bruce made reference to in his remarks. But the fact is that the eventual result was to deliver the Clarke review. That review came to a number of conclusions and recommended what governments should identify and respond to in relation to the Maralinga tests.

The review’s conclusions were that the committee believed that the British atomic test series was a unique and extraordinary event in Australia’s history—that was clear enough—and that atomic devices were exploded in Australia with Australian forces potentially exposed to levels of radiation beyond what would be today considered as safe levels. I think the Clarke review says, very sensibly, that, by any reasonable measure, service in the test operations must be regarded as involving hazards beyond those of normal peacetime duties. That is the nub of the legislation that is in front of us, which we do support but which we think is deficient in that regard.

The review went on to find that there was evidence that members of the armed forces were placed in danger from ionising radiation and other toxic materials that had been used in the program and that the Commonwealth government should provide these members of Australia’s armed forces with compensation coverage under the VE Act. That is something that the government has not done as it brings this legislation into the House. I think it is true that servicemen remain anxious about the government’s approach to this particular issue, particularly when it takes such extensive periods of time for people to be able to resolve the issues that they have concerning development of cancers or sicknesses and whether or not that is linked to their earlier participation in these programs.

I do note that by relying initially on British assurances, as we did when the tests began in the fifties, we had very little knowledge about nuclear matters then. The veterans then had to rely on the assurances of Australian politicians, when they really did not know what was happening with the tests. The veterans then had to rely on the assurance of these various committees that were set up. Most importantly, the committee they were themselves involved in at the conclusion of the process that I have just addressed was a consultative committee—and yet, again, they have not been heard. I think it makes it much more understandable why they have high levels of anxiety.

The Herald Sun investigation in 2002 raised the issue of the way in which the materials were tested in the United Kingdom between 1957 and 1969. Human bone samples had been sent to the United States and United Kingdom to be tested for strontium-90, but the tests were not from communities that had originally been exposed to what were called the ‘rainouts’ that took place as a result of the tests. That is one example of the concerns people have—even though, as the Herald Sun report noted, there was a marked increase in infant mortality in some of those rural areas, including places like Mildura, I think, and Warrnambool, from which samples for the bone studies had not been taken. The seven-year study did show there was no conclusive link, but it also said that those who participated needed to get healthcare cover for cancer, and that is what happens under this bill.

But I must say the consultative forum that was a part of those final studies processes, and the members of that consultative forum—which included service representatives, test veterans, DVA staff, and Allan Batchelor and Jack Lonergan, as the member for Bruce mentioned—have raised a number of important concerns, which I urge the minister to take on board, about the irregular meetings that took place and about some of the crucial matters that were missing in deliberations, particularly of the dosimetric committee, and the issue of the use of highly enriched uranium not being given full consideration. I think it is a matter of some regret that Dr Johnson and Major Batchelor were constantly ignored, as reported in the Canberra Times of 16 December this year, in relation to the matters they raised. These were the communities and, in the case of Major Batchelor, the people who had actually been involved in the tests. Yet the views that they brought, and the questions and concerns that they had, were sidelined by the department, and the last scientific advisory committee actually went ahead without a member of the consultative committee being able to have those issues that they raised fully explored and considered.

By not providing treatment under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and by not having veterans considered with the respect that they ought to be, there is a continuation of the imbalance of power between governments and retired service personnel and veterans. For a veteran to show that in some way they have been affected by a test of this kind—other than the fact that there have been a number of programs of a limited nature that have permitted that—they effectively to have go into court against the Commonwealth. And they have the burden of proof and have to show that in fact the cancer, the sickness or the suffering that they have was a consequence of the tests.

It is a welcome step in the right direction that we have a bill which provides for non-liability treatment for cancer for the participants in the test, but the key aspect of the Clarke review, which followed on from all of these tests that I have referred to, was simply that non-warlike hazardous service should be granted to the nuclear veterans. The granting of non-warlike hazardous service would permit them to receive disability pensions more easily, and there would be widows pensions and so on that would flow through. It seems hardly unreasonable—given what these people have been through and given that many of them have passed away without their issues being satisfactorily resolved—that the government would be able to do that. I note correspondence by Minister Billson dated 23 August 2002 supporting operational service associated with Maralinga being declared hazardous service. If it is something which is on the record from the minister, something that we have in front of us, why is it not reflected in this legislation?

Maralinga will continue to shadow people. It will continue to provide anxiety for those who suffer bad health and poor health, particularly those who recognise—the great numbers of them that were in the desert regions when the British let off nuclear tests in the 1950s without their knowledge and without the knowledge of the Australian community—that the sicknesses that they still suffer may be a consequence of those tests. The very last thing that we want to do is not show the level of support that I think everybody in this House agrees these veteran communities are entitled to.

It is a fact that the efforts of veteran communities are being frustrated. This bill does not go to the concerns that veterans have raised—and continue to raise—and that have been identified in the press, including in the Canberra Times article, the Herald Sun article and others that I have mentioned. If it is a fact that the Clarke review recommendations deserve further consideration, then that is something which I think we would argue very strongly needs to happen. I hope the minister will take some notice of that. As the member for Bruce said, it is essential to find strong support from both sides of the House for the great contribution that these service men and women made, including at Maralinga, and, more importantly, to recognise what they went through and to correct the deficiencies in this legislation. That is needed now.


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