Pursuant to standing order 164 (3) I seek an explanation from the Minister for Defence as to why Order for the Production of Documents No. 91 has not been complied with.
Minister Birmingham confirmed there is no response from the Government.
Taking note of that answer:
With all due respect, that just isn't good enough. The committee on PFAS contamination handed down its report almost 12 months ago, and we haven't seen a response to any one of the single recommendations made by that committee. Every day the government delays responding to this report really shows its contempt not only for the Senate but also for the thousands of people who have lived with contamination of their lands and their water, which was actually caused by the government.
It is showing contempt and disrespect for no fewer than 27 primarily regional communities that live near Defence bases—so much for the talk of supporting regional communities by this government—and these communities are across practically every state and territory in Australia. In New South Wales alone there are four sites under active management for PFAS and three more under investigation. Every day that the government denies compensation it drives these people further into the ground financially as well as further damaging their mental and physical health. These communities did nothing wrong. Their land was contaminated by the Department of Defence. But now the community is expected to bear the cost of living with PFAS contamination—not good enough.
The government needs to stop pretending that this is some kind of new issue. It isn't. The United States Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Australian government 18 years ago—almost two decades—to draw attention to the long-term risks of PFAS to human health and the environment. If you read the committee's report, Minister, you will see the pain that communities are living with. This is really hurting people. People have had to delay their retirement and increase their work hours because of this huge financial impost. The submissions talk about stress, anxiety and depression and even cancers, heart attacks, pregnancy loss and developmental issues with children. People have had to put their lives on hold. They have had to change their whole life plans. This is heartbreaking. People are at a breaking point.
The government needs to take action and it needs to take action now. The inquiry into PFAS contamination was an opportunity for the community to have the government hear them and listen to them, but here we are almost 12 months on and the government still won't release a response. I know it is a complex issue, but usually responses come within three months. This is an urgent issue as well.
Our committee made a wide range of recommendations that would go some way to resolving this issue. What exactly does the government object to? We made recommendations around providing leadership in order to drive effective and transparent responses to PFAS contamination, including ongoing monitoring, identifying gaps in priorities for investigation and remediation, the upscaling of investment in the containment of PFAS plumes and the remediation of contaminated land and water. We called for a coordinator-general to coordinate a national response and provide a national point of contact. These are logical steps to take immediately.
We also recommended legislation and policies to ban nationally the use of long-chain PFAS based firefighting foams and to contain and ultimately destroy these safely, where they still exist. The Australian government should make it a matter of priority to ratify the listing of PFAS under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, noting that Australia is one of the only countries not to have ratified this global agreement. The committee also recommended that the Australian government assist property owners and businesses in affected areas through compensation, including the possibility of buybacks, as well as free, individualised case management and financial counselling services.
I have had the opportunity to meet with two PFAS affected communities again in the last few weeks: in Richmond in Western Sydney and in Williamtown in the Hunter. That is since the Senate passed my order for the production of documents. I was hoping to tell these communities the good news: that the government has finally responded to our report and their needs. Instead, I had to tell them what they already knew: that the government doesn't care about them. The amazing Hawkesbury Environment Network organised a community forum for the community affected by PFAS contamination from the Richmond RAAF base. People are angry. They are really frustrated at the lack of a response from the government. They feel that the government and the Department of Defence aren't listening and taking their concerns seriously. Farmers are being told that their produce is too contaminated for they themselves to consume, so they should sell it onto the market to reduce concentration risk. Why would a producer want to sell produce they know has contaminated levels of PFAS? What kind of advice is this? Another resident questioned whether or not it was safe to give her chicken eggs to her grandchildren. People are confused and scared, and when they talk to the Department of Defence they aren't getting the answers they want or need. Consultation isn't just turning up and listening. It is about acting on what the people are saying.
People want you to use the precautionary principle. People want you to take responsibility for your actions. Take blood testing, for instance. On 30 June, the government closed the voluntary blood-testing program for people who live or work in or have lived or worked in the investigation areas in RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales, Army Aviation Centre, Oakey, Queensland, or RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, and had potentially been exposed to PFAS. Now, no-one has access to free blood testing to monitor PFAS levels in their blood. Residents told me that they were told that if they wanted their blood monitored for PFAS contamination they would have to shell out hundreds of dollars. How is this acceptable? How is this okay?
At Williamtown, they're staring down their fifth Christmas of dealing with this issue. Drive down Fullerton Cove Road and you'll see on people's properties sign after sign calling out the federal government for ruining people's lives. In the red zone, which the Department of Defence now calls the 'primary management zone', Lindsay Clout told me that frustration is probably a minor word. It's anger now. Outside the RAAF base, on Medowie Road, resident Linden Drysdale put it well, telling me that the government is cruel for leaving Port Stephens residents in limbo for almost a year since the parliamentary committee inquiring into PFAS contamination handed down its report calling for strong action. She said:
The big people - the politicians in Canberra - don't listen to us little people ... We are the ones who are living this nightmare 24/7 and we are not going to stop fighting, even it means till the death.
If you think you can get away with ignoring the people, well, you have another think coming. You have the luxury of sitting here wasting time and obfuscating, but they don't. The community have waited long enough. Communities have suffered long enough. I can conclude only that the government is dragging its heels to avoid facing up to its responsibilities. Stop forcing these communities to pay the cost of the government's mistakes. Comply with the order of the Senate and respond to the really good recommendations of the committee.