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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 11721

Mr MELHAM (Banks) (11:20): The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Participants in British Nuclear Tests) Bill 2011 seeks to extend access to compensation and health care for those Australians who participated in the British nuclear tests through amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. Those affected are people who were involved in the maintenance, transport and decontamination of aircraft used in British nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006 has been amended on two occasions to extend coverage to previously ineligible personnel. These amendments were made as new information came to light. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs made the point in his second reading speech that, given the secret nature of the operation, it is not out of the question that further new information about groups of people affected may come to light. On that basis, the legislation will enable the Repatriation Commission to determine, through legislative instrument, additional eligibility criteria relating to participation in the British nuclear test program.

The government announced these changes in the 2010-11 budget. Currently, the nominal roll of Australian participants in the British atomic test program—this is information I obtained from the Parliamentary Library—is as follows: Navy, 3,268; Army, 1,657; RAAF, 3,201; and civilians, 8,590, including 10 Indigenous people. Of the total participants, 48.6 per cent were military personnel; therefore it is not impossible that further participants may come to light.

The original changes were made under the Howard government in 2006 as a result of the Clarke review. Within the terms of reference of the Clarke review was an examination of the claims by nuclear test participants for government assistance. The recommendation was the accreditation of participation in non-warlike hazardous service. The British nuclear test program was conducted in the Montebello Islands in 1952 and 1956 and at Emu Field in 1953—two tests—and there were seven tests at Maralinga in 1956 and 1957. There were tests at Christmas Island and Malden Island, but Australians were not involved. There were also 600 minor trials between 1953 and 1963, including the testing of bomb components.

The history of claims about adverse health reactions and deaths suffered by nuclear test participants goes back many years, far longer than the first studies and reports undertaken in Australia, which commenced in the early 1980s. There were two key issues underpinning this. Firstly, many of the participants themselves considered that they were exposed to hazardous radiation during the tests, especially given what is now known about the dangers of radiation. Secondly, the participants continuously reported incidences of illness and death that they considered to be abnormal and therefore associated with the tests.

The bill before the House today seeks to ensure that the interests of those who have been affected will be looked after. It also ensures that any who may be further identified will also have their health needs acted on. That is the way it should be, and what also should happen is what is happening: bipartisan support for this. For too long officialdom were in denial. For too long it was too difficult for people to be properly compensated in relation to the health effects that they suffered as a result of these tests. There is no doubt in my mind that people looked the other way. It was all about the dollar; it was all about minimising compensation, minimising payouts. That also happened in relation to asbestos. But we are more enlightened now in relation to asbestos and also these tests. It is appropriate that there be an expansion of those who have been adversely affected and are eligible to be considered. I think it is something that the parliament and the minister should continue to watch, and we should be a little bit more generous just as with those who went to Vietnam and came back having been affected by Agent Orange—again denial for a very long time as to the impacts. Gulf War syndrome: denial for a very long time as to the impacts.

I have a large veterans community in my electorate. For the 21 years I have served in the parliament an area that my office has specialised in has been the assistance of those veterans with their claims, in many cases successfully and in other cases not successfully. But I have seen a change of attitude over time, and it changed because the government mindset changed. So I am quite pleased to support the bill before the parliament today and am pleased that it is receiving bipartisan support, because we have got to stop the denial. In my opinion, if you have a situation where people are affected as a result of these actions, then you should be facilitating looking after them, not creating barrier after barrier while hoping that people will die or go away before they get their due compensation.

It is worth while again having a look at what is in the explanatory memorandum because that explains it in plain English, so I think it is better to add into my speech for the record what the explanatory memorandum says. I have already covered some of this in my speech but it is worth repeating. It says:

The Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act provides that Australian participants in the British nuclear tests (defined as a `nuclear test participant') are able to receive treatment and testing for malignant neoplasia (cancer) through the Repatriation Commission and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Amendments were made to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act in 2008 and 2010 to provide extended coverage for members of the Commonwealth Police (now known as the Australian Federal Police) and Protective Service Officers who were responsible for patrolling the exclusion zone at Maralinga throughout the testing period and up to 30 June 1988.

They were previously excluded. Further on it says:

It has become evident following the receipt of a small number of claims from Defence Force members claiming British nuclear test defence service, that some personnel undertaking the specific tasks of maintaining, transporting or decontaminating aircraft (other than Royal Air Force Canberra aircraft) used in the British nuclear test program should be, but are not currently, eligible under the Veterans' Entitlements Act or the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act … The proposed amendments will allow the Repatriation Commission to determine, by legislative instrument, additional eligibility criteria for `British nuclear test defence service' under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and for `nuclear test participant' under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act. The amendments will facilitate eligibility under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act, through enabling the making of a legislative instrument, in respect of these claims and will enable future claims of a similar nature to be dealt with more expediently. This will ensure that any newly found eligible personnel will receive benefits and treatment provided under the respective Acts with the minimum of delay.

This is as it should be.

A lot of these changes have been achieved by people in the field agitating for them, producing evidence, arguing their case, rearguing their case and convincing the authorities that they were taking too narrow a view of the world as it then was and that that was affecting their eligibility. So I think we are debating a very good thing this afternoon. A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for taking up the fight over the years. These things are not easily proved. To have authorities change their attitudes is not easily achieved, but attitudes have changed; attitudes have improved. It is good, as I said, that both sides of the House support this legislation. It is good legislation. I commend it to the House.