Thursday, 13 February 2020
Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Report
I rise to speak on the first report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases. I will just put on the parliamentary record how frustrating it is, really, to once again be standing to speak on an issue that clearly eludes this government, which is not dealing with it in an urgent manner for all those families around Australia who definitely want direction and certainty about what this government is doing in relation to PFAS and the concerns families have. We've had numerous reports here in the parliament in relation to those concerns, and they've been articulated graphically and at length by families and organisations who have held major concerns in the Katherine region and certainly down in New South Wales, including in the Newcastle region, and over in WA.
I know that the report that I'm referring to now is the third of its kind. This inquiry is the third inquiry into PFAS contamination, yet the government still has yet to respond to the previous one. That's where the frustration is. The frustration is that we've spent so much time on this issue, and clearly it's round and round we go. If I feel frustrated, as a senator involved in this inquiry and trying to push it as best I can, imagine how those families who've given evidence on numerous occasions are feeling. They've pretty much given up on us, and that's why we see class actions taking place across the country in relation to those concerns about PFAS. People have had a gutful. They need action; they're not satisfied. Whatever we do in here and whatever we say is not going to bring home confidence to those families, unfortunately.
If I reflect on the report that I worked on as deputy chair, it contains significant recommendations. We wanted to give the government opportunities to respond in ways that were reasonable and very practical—particularly in relation to the concerns of those affected communities that I've mentioned. The committee recommended that a coordinator-general be appointed, with the authority and resources necessary to coordinate more effectively the whole-of-Commonwealth-government effort in respect of PFAS contamination, and also to ensure a clear and consistent approach to community consultations and cooperation with state, territory and local governments.
And it is critical. I recall the conversations that we had about the coordinator-general, that being able to bring together all these Commonwealth agencies and the state and territory jurisdictions in a very effective manner was not a hard thing to do. I cannot for the life of me understand why that recommendation has not even been responded to.
The committee also made recommendations to improve the voluntary blood-testing program as a source of longitudinal information on the long-term health effects of PFAS exposure and the effectiveness of measures to break PFAS exposure pathways. In many instances, property owners in the PFAS contaminated areas—we know where they are across this country; I've certainly mentioned it so many times, and I'm very concerned about the Katherine region in the Northern Territory—have suffered demonstrable and quantifiable financial losses. Our committee recommended compensation. That was done with the chair of that committee, Andrew Laming MP, and still there is silence from this government. It's not good enough, two years from when we began that subcommittee and the PFAS inquiry into these concerns across the country, that the government has not responded.
So there we have it. If trust has been lost with the previous inquiry then the questions around this third inquiry will really be about, 'Why waste our time?' Maybe that's what the government wants people to do—families to do—not to give their time. It was actually in December 2017 when we all stood in this chamber, agreeing to a subcommittee. We came up to December 2019, and there was still no report. Now we're in February 2020 and there is still no response. I seek leave to continue my remarks.