House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2022-2023; Consideration in Detail

10:44 am

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

PFAS contamination on and around military bases is one of the biggest challenges in our country and across the world. In my electorate of Paterson, the RAAF defence base in Williamtown is no exception. In fact, it is most problematic, because of its proximity to the rural residential properties on its border, the coastline—with an incredibly high water table—and, indeed, some Ramsar wetlands nearby. Approximately 700 households in my electorate are affected by the management zone, declared by the New South Wales EPA, that encircles those properties. It was first publicised in 2015, and those affected have had their lives placed on hold whilst awaiting a solution to this environmental disaster. For nearly seven years I have stood beside these people in my electorate, who still to this point know little of how their health and the health of their families is impacted. They have had their main asset, the value of their homes and properties, slashed. Farmers have had their livelihoods suspended. They have had little or no way to escape the restrictions that were placed on them through absolutely no fault of their own. After seven years and millions of dollars spent by the defence department and the former government, these families are no closer to a solution.

It must be noted that the defence department takes orders from the government of the day and, whilst the safety and security of our nation is in the hands of the fabulous Australian Defence Force, the local safety of our own people must start with taking responsibility. I am so proud to tell you that winning government has been a game changer for me, because the new government have finally stood up and taken some responsibility for the unmitigated mess that was there before they came to government. I am able to actually work on a solution for these families, and I haven't wasted a minute in starting this process. I want to say that my colleague the Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, in his capacity as shadow minister for defence, has been with me on this journey for the past seven years, demonstrating a willingness to listen and work with my community. In our first parliamentary sitting in government, he convened a meeting with me, along with the assistant minister for defence Matt Thistlethwaite and the attorney-general Mark Dreyfus KC MP. It was clear that I had the support of my colleagues to begin this process. It was also clear that the previous government had sat on their hands.

Assistant Minister Thistlethwaite has already been to my electorate twice and met with my community, and the first thing he did was say sorry. That went a long way for those people who had spent seven years begging and pleading to try and get some meetings with people of influence within their own government. He took responsibility for the contamination and vowed to work with the defence department to help these people. It was very clear that all three levels of our government are needed to fix this mess, and we are stepping up and taking responsibility for our fair share of it. Then just last week he called a meeting with community leaders, stakeholders and experts, for those levels of government to establish what we already know, and we do know a lot. We also needed to establish what we need and how we make these things happen for our community and, quite frankly, for our defence community as well.

I'm pleased that Defence departmental staff were eager to share the work to date and participate in the conversation moving forward. I'm grateful to the local Port Stephens Council experts that could explain and offer solutions and sound counsel. I appreciate the New South Wales Government defence and aerospace staff who also participated, and I look forward to working with the EPA in New South Wales and the state government in the near future. Most of all, I'm so grateful to my community. I am grateful to people like Lindsay Clout who have hung in there and worked tirelessly to find a solution. To them I say: we will fix this as a government that stands up and takes responsibility. There is good work being done by Defence, and there's a raft of research being done by universities. We will fix this mess as a responsible Albanese government.


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