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Some acknowledgement at last for nuclear veterans

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 15 Jun 2017

I told Senator Williams on the way in that I would come in here this afternoon and say something nice about the government, and I was not bluffing. It is rare but I am in here to acknowledge that the government is, with this bill, doing what it could do to right a very longstanding historical injustice. I also want to acknowledge Senator Xenophon's longstanding interest and the work that he has put in to bring this about. It is something that I have had carriage of since I arrived in here nearly nine years ago. It is an extraordinary day that we here today acknowledge those ADF service personnel who were neglected by governments of both stripes for far too long. I want to acknowledge Minister Dan Tehan, who has done what he could do in this budget to do something about this historic injustice. I think it is a measure of the fact that previous governments have neglected these personnel and those Aboriginal people who were dispossessed without warning from their country down range of Maralinga, Emu Field and the Montebello Islands. It is 2017. It is such a long time after the atomic bombings of our country that we are finally standing here today passing a measure that will at least provide reparation for those survivors of this long-ago historic injustice.

The bill does a little more than that, so I will just come to some of the other measures, which are also welcomed. The decision to expand free and immediate mental health care support to current and former ADF members is one that is, again, long overdue. I acknowledge that the minister has a long way to go within this portfolio, but this is an important start. This chamber, through the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, has recently been hearing devastating testimony from hundreds of former and serving ADF members with mental health conditions through the veterans suicide inquiry. It is a shame Senator Lambie is not here because she has done a lot of work on highlighting the issue of current and former service personnel who were damaged in the line of serving their country.

Senator Siewert, who has had carriage of this for us and who is our mental health spokesperson, has been travelling around the country with this committee. I was pleased to be able to participate in the hearing that happened in Perth. We heard extraordinary testimony from people for whom the trauma that they might have experienced in their line of service was really only the beginning. The trauma did not really come home to them until they crashed into the bureaucracy that was set up at taxpayers' expense to help these individuals resolve the issues that occurred to them and harmed them in the line of service, and they then found themselves enmeshed in this web of bureaucracy and spat out the other end, sometimes—many times—worse than when they had come in.

The fact that the government has moved on the liability healthcare program to expand it so that it is available now for any mental health condition is extremely welcome. Removing the onus of proof from ADF members and veterans means less stress, less contact with bureaucracy and no waiting times. All those things are critical in paving the way for better mental health outcomes for the people who we send into harm's way.

We also welcome the measure in the bill to provide nearly $10 million to pilot new approaches to suicide prevention. I would also acknowledge that this has to be just the beginning. There is a long way to go. Anybody who has participated in the veteran suicide inquiry would be well aware of that. But it is a beginning. We are pleased to see investments to upgrade DVA's services and systems—that was a bill that we dealt with in the session before the last—working with paper chains dating back to the 1950s and '60s. We hope that that is going to lead to much shorter waiting times for things like reimbursements. It will allow DVA staff to concentrate on human contact rather than try to manage an obsolete system.

Now, I would like to move in a little more detail to the matter very close to my heart and which is contained in schedule 1 of the bill. It provides full medical treatment and support for Australian participants in the British nuclear tests and Australian veterans of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force—a cohort of individuals of whom we have actually heard substantially less. Also, and which was actually quite unexpected for me, it acknowledges and compensates those Aboriginal people who were downwind of the nuclear tests.

It means that the veterans who were forced as a condition of their service to participate in and witness the nuclear bombings off Montebello Islands and at Emu Plains and Maralinga by our ally the British government will get automatic, as a right, access to the gold card. It means also that Aboriginal people in the deserts around Maralinga and elsewhere who were exposed will have free access to medical treatment for all conditions and it means that those Australians involved in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan after the war will also be eligible for the gold card.

I am trying to imagine the mindset of people who signed up to serve their country in the early years of the Cold War, after the shattering experience of World War II, only to be told that what their country needed of them was to be used as human guinea pigs in nuclear weapons tests by our imperial ally. These people, whether in uniform or not, were exposed to neutron radiation, fission products, fallout and other contamination and have suffered a lifetime of health conditions. Cancer is obviously the most commonly understood condition that can arise years or even decades after exposure to ionising radiation, but there are medical conditions attendant on this kind of assault on your immune system and body that do not even have a name. Cancer may be the most common, but there are many others. They have been cursed with long-term intergenerational health and genetic effects, cancer, blood diseases, eye problems, skin problems and blindness. I would argue that this is one of the darkest chapters of Australia's postwar history.

There were many of these tests. Maybe they have faded in the memory of this parliament and the Australian community. The first test, code named Hurricane, occurred in 1952 on the Montebello Islands in the north-west of my home state of Western Australia. Significant tests also occurred at Emu Plains in 1953 and began at Maralinga in 1955. Trials continued in annual campaigns until May 1963. The British government had a lot of nuclear technology that they wanted to test.

I have been working with campaigners on this issue now for nearly a decade. In that time I have heard so many stories about the injustices that they have suffered. I would like to reflect, if I may, just on a couple of those, as I have done previously. Mr Ray Whitby, a fellow Western Australian, is a nuclear veteran in the 1958 tests at Montebello. He said:

More than half a century ago, I was a young man eager to serve his country. As a result I have suffered a lifetime of medical issues that have impacted my enjoyment of life. All I now ask for is fair and just compensation.

Mr Geoffrey Gates, one of the 290 veterans who took their case to the Australian Human Rights Commission, said:

To not be recognised by the government as having participated in non-warlike hazardous activities is an insult to me, to my family and to all other veterans and civilians whose lives changed forever because we simply weren't told the truth. 
Around Maralinga and the other test sites the detonations led to widespread dispersion of radioactive material into the local environment. The Anangu Aboriginal people, who lived in the area, called it puyu or black mist. Downwind of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they called it black rain. This is dust, ground and earth stirred up with fallout, with fission products, from the atomic detonations. It is poisonous. 

The utter tragedy obviously is that successive governments of both stripes turned a blind eye on a lifetime of health conditions because these people were bombed by an ally, not an enemy. If they had been bombed by Imperial Japan or by Nazi Germany, they would have automatically as a right have been entitled to this form of health care, but they were bombed by an ally at the invitation of the Australian government. What a dark chapter in our history.

The findings of the 1984 and 1985 Royal Commission into the British Nuclear Tests in Australia support the claim that the Menzies government knew that Australians would be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Let that sink in for a bit. They did not invite these people out there to witness the tests for any kind of combat readiness; they invited them there to study the impact of ionising radiation, of being that close to atomic detonations, on Australian service personnel, and they did not tell them why they were being sent there. They deliberately put Australians into harm's way and they showed absolutely zero regard for the Aboriginal people living in the area.

Until now successive governments have been content to avoid eye contact with the dwindling number of people. Obviously there are fewer of these individuals with us than there were when I started to take an interest in this issue. I want to sincerely thank and congratulate Minister Tehan and his staff for addressing the issue at long last and providing the roughly 2,800 people still alive with free health care. DVA have also indicated that they will be flexible in their approach to free healthcare provisions, particularly for Aboriginal people, who are not going to have the kind of documentary backup that some of the ADF personnel will be able to have to prove their exact whereabouts during the time of the tests.

One issue that I have raised—and I do not how to resolve it, quite frankly—is that the bill does not provide for the well-known effects of radiation on successive generations. This is not some hippie theory; this has been well established. Exposure to ionising radiation damages your generic inheritance and can have absolutely catastrophic impacts if you are in utero at the time or you are a child born of personnel or people exposed to even quite low levels of ionising radiation. The bill does not provide for that automatic entitlement to health care for successive generations. If there is unfinished business from this matter today, I suspect it is going to be that, whether we like it or not, the impacts of these tests will live on in the children and the grandchildren of those who were exposed. They are the kind of risks that you take.

Given that the Turnbull government, in this welcome measure, now recognises the devastating impacts of nuclear weapons on human beings, why would we be sitting out international negotiations that are the best opportunity in our lifetime—certainly since I have been engaged in these issues—to ban these horrific weapons once and for all? With what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the hibakusha have a saying: never again. The people who were exposed to those tests—never again. They have become some of the most outspoken campaigners for the abolition of nuclear weapons. With respect, I would have thought that today marked an appropriate moment to suggest to the government—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—that you reconsider your decision to boycott those negotiations where more than 130 governments of goodwill have met with civil society organisations, including the Red Cross, ICAN and other civil society groups operating around the world to work in good faith to ban these weapons so that nobody ever again has to go through the experiences of the personnel that we are acknowledging today. 

Australia's own experience with the British atomic tests shows the wide-reaching consequences of nuclear weapons even when they are used in peace time in carefully controlled, relatively remote areas of low population density. Try and imagine, if you will, waking up to work out why everybody is glued to the television to find that some city with a familiar name has been reduced to ash overnight and more than 100,000 people are dead. These are the kinds of weapons that we are dicing with. There is a historical legacy here that I think is a call that I want to refresh and renew today for a world free of these weapons. 

In proposing the bill, the government has recognised the dangers of these weapons and the intergenerational costs that are borne by people who were not asked whether they wanted to be exposed to this kind of radiation. Now I urge it to take the next step and work towards outlawing these weapons for good. I want to acknowledge, in particular, those veterans, the Aboriginal people and their families who have suffered so much and yet made the effort to get out and advocate and make their case.

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