Wednesday, 9 December 2020
PFAS Taskforce, Australian Taxation Office; Order for the Production of Documents
That the Senate take note of the documents.
I thank the Minister for Aged Care for the documents. I was told in meetings with Defence last year that the PFAS Taskforce was working on the problem of PFAS contamination by applying a whole-of-government response, so I asked for the minutes of their meetings to see what a whole-of-government response looked like. I was refused. I did a document discovery, and still no minutes arrived. This third attempt has succeeded. It should not have been this hard to get hold of a simple set of minutes. Having read them, I do understand why they had to be prised from the task force.
The Morrison government's PFAS response is all talk. It is a process that has no destination. As a result, it is achieving nothing. It seems to be aiming to stall and to avert. The last concrete action by this government was in 2018 when it awarded $55 million for a drinking-water program for affected areas and $73 million for research into PFAS. There are now over 900 PFAS sites around Australia. The government is remediating four defence sites—bases at Williamtown, Oakey, Edinburgh and Katherine. Four down and 896 to go.
While the PFAS Taskforce is sitting around holding meetings and reissuing old guidances, the residents of the red zones continue to live with the nightmare every day. Residents are trapped in homes that are unsaleable. I have spoken many times with, and have visited on a number of occasions the home of, David Jefferis and Dianne Priddle from Oakey in Queensland. They purchased their property in 2004 for a combined $2.4 million investment. At that time the defence department knew that their land was affected by PFAS and yet they kept quiet. Once the contamination was made public, the property became unsaleable. David and Dianne's successful cattle breeding and grazing business had to close because nobody wants to buy contaminated cattle or genetics—they have a stud property. It's a very clean and tidy operation. David and Dianne's property and business were recently valued by a registered valuer at just $400,000—a $2 million loss through no fault of their own.
It's an outrage that the Morrison government is allowing these residents to remain trapped in red zones while the PFAS Task Force drifts around from meeting room to meeting room in search of direction. While the recent class action lawsuit was settled, David and Dianne received just $120,000 compensation, and they haven't got the money yet. The government's own PFAS subcommittee has made the same recommendation in the last two update reports. It called for remediation, compensation and like-for-like relocation. That's fair. I hope the third head of that subcommittee in just two years, Senator McCarthy, has more success in getting their recommendations implemented. The way forward now must be to remove residents out of the contaminated red zones, install remediation units and treat the groundwater before these toxic blooms spread further and ruin yet more lives.
Last year I asked the then Minister for Agriculture, Senator McKenzie, if it was safe for producers like David and Diane to send their cattle to auction. Senator McKenzie replied 'there is no reason why farmers cannot send their produce to market'. Let's examine that statement. Food Standards Australia specify a safe level for PFAS exposure of 20 nanograms of PFAS and 160 nanograms for PFOA. These can be present together for a total PFAS level of 180 nanograms per kilo of bodyweight. On 19 September 2020, the European Food Safety Authority set a new safety threshold for PFAS contamination. The limit which now applies across the EU is just 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight per week—a fraction of what Australia allows. The European body considered the decreased response of the immune system to vaccination to be the most critical human health effect of PFAS exposure. So I ask, has the PFAS task force considered that the Morrison government is about to introduce a vaccine for COVID that might be put at risk through our tolerating PFAS levels that are 40 times higher than the new European safety standard? Cattle in the red zone from RAAF base Richmond have been tested at over 1,000 nanograms per kilo. Newborn calves are testing at over 300 nanograms. This is the product that former minister McKenzie says is safe to sell and consume. It is not safe to sell. By sending contaminated products to the EU, we're risking food and livestock exports worth $2 billion a year. This is not just affecting Oakey; this is affecting the whole beef industry.
The Morrison government can find billions to give to its big business mates for corporate welfare in the name of COVID but it can't find a much, much smaller amount to fund a like-for-like relocation and compensation scheme for everyday Australians caught up in a nightmare of the government's making, despite the committee recommending it do so. It's time for the Prime Minister to fix this problem. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.