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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 206


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (11:33 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006 and the 1998 Budget Measures Legislation Amendment (Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements) Bill 1998. I say that because sometimes one of the most challenging decisions one has to make as a human being is actually to admit when you are wrong. Just as we owe the Indigenous people of Australia an apology for wrongs that we as a community did in the past, so too do we owe our veterans an apology for, and also action to remedy, some of the mistakes we as a community have made over the last 50 years.

I say that because I very firmly believe that Australia will be a better country when we as a community are able to confront our past and account for mistakes made. Today’s debate is a step down that path. As we all appreciate, the British nuclear weapons testing carried out in Australia between the 1950s and the 1960s belongs to that category of mistakes that need to be recognised so they can be appropriately resolved. For too long this nation has failed to properly recognise how the issue of injustice for personnel, citizens and members of local Indigenous communities, principally the Indigenous community of the Pitjantjatjara, has dragged on.

The first British nuclear weapons test was conducted in 1952 and the last in 1963, the process spanning just over a decade. As speakers in this debate have indicated, there has been a royal commission that brought down its findings in 1985, the establishment of a nominal roll in 1999, the independent Clarke review of entitlements released in 2003 and a study into cancer and mortality rates with the results released in June this year. It would be interesting, but time does not permit me, to list the series of veterans’ affairs ministers who have held the portfolio in this period during which, perhaps, more decisive action should have been taken.

It is now almost 54 years since the first test, detonating 25 kilotons of atomic material, was carried out on the Montebello Islands, just off the Western Australian coast, as part of Operation Hurricane. This is also an interesting area with the exploration and developments occurring at the moment in the oil and gas industry, which are creating further new opportunities for Australia. That aside, it is 54 years since the first of the 18,000 Australians to be involved in the nuclear tests, often young men in their 20s, wearing just shorts, sandals and sunhats, stood on the deck of a nearby Royal Navy vessel and were told to turn their backs and place the backs of their hands over their faces so as to shield their eyes.

The first bomb was just one of 12 atomic detonations to be carried out in Australia in the Western Australian islands and in Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. There were a further 600 minor trials conducted between 1953 and 1963, including the testing of bomb components. This involved tests designed to help determine the extent of impacts to a nuclear weapon in the event of a transport or storage accident such as fire. They were significant tests that carried significant risks. To give you some idea of just how substantial these tests were, it has been reported in recent days that Russian defence sources estimate that the power of the North Korean test carried out on Tuesday was between five and 15 kilotons.

It has been too long already for the participants of the test to be appropriately recognised by the federal government for the harms they encountered as part of this sorry episode in our nation’s history. For this reason, I join my colleagues in lending support to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006 and the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2006. These bills collectively will provide long overdue non-liability treatment of and testing for cancer for eligible participants in Australian and British nuclear tests.

The findings of the Australian participants in British nuclear tests in Australia study released in June 2006 compared the number of deaths in test participants with that of the general population as well as the number of cases of cancer, whether fatal or not, and the radiation exposure of participants with and without leukaemia—an interesting analysis. It showed that, while the overall death rate in test participants was only slightly higher than that of the general population, there was a significantly higher rate of death from cancer, 18 per cent, in test participants than would be expected in the general population. Science speaks for itself.

The cancer incidence study showed similar figures, with an overall increase in the numbers of cancers in test participants. Cancer was 23 per cent more prevalent amongst participants. The incidence of certain types of cancer was particularly prevalent, including melanoma and leukaemias of all types. In reading the report, the need to provide free treatment and testing for cancer participants becomes abundantly clear, and it is the central reason that the opposition supports the bill. However, we also raise serious issues about whether or not the bill goes far enough.

When released in June, the report concluded that it did not find the increases in cancer rates to be caused by an exposure to radiation, with no relationship found between overall cancer incidence or mortality and exposure to radiation. None of the cancers such as melanoma and leukaemias occurring in excess showed any association with radiation exposure in the study. The report findings obviously saddened the hearts of many of the shrinking number of test participants who are still alive today—and their families—because these people provided anecdotal evidence that personnel involved were used as guinea pigs in the tests to determine the level of human tolerance to nuclear weapons. This is in addition to a flagrant disregard at the time for the safety of personnel who were almost never provided with protective clothing but were asked to perform acts that put their safety at great risk.

There are, for instance, reports that personnel at Maralinga in South Australia were sent into the bunkers buried only 1,000 metres from ground zero after the detonating of four atomic bombs in that area. Their instructions were to retrieve the data required as soon as possible after detonation and they sometimes went in only one hour after the weapon went off. To retrieve the data instruments they lifted sandbags by hand and removed equipment without wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus. The tests were carried out, obviously, by the British government in an era where attitudes were driven by fears proliferated by the Cold War. More remarkably however, the tests were carried out with the full agreement, cooperation and support of the Australian government, then headed by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies.

The tests are widely perceived today, for whatever reason, as a bid by the British government to catch up militarily with the United States after World War II and with the Soviet Union after the USSR exploded its first nuclear weapon in August 1949. They were designed to enable the United Kingdom to develop nuclear fission bombs and later nuclear fusion or hydrogen bombs. In 1953, and the record shows this, the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, responded to a parliamentary question on the testing by declaring that the tests would produce ‘no conceivable injury to life, limb or property’ and that they were essential to ‘the defence of the free world’. Obviously, the world has changed. People are concerned about the impact of those tests.

It is in this climate of national duty to the motherhood of England and with a disregard for appropriate safety precautions, which we can appreciate today, that many participants, fellow Australians, felt that the classification of nuclear test services should be deemed hazardous service. And why shouldn’t it be? The classification of hazardous service under the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986, as a minimum, provides for access to the disability pension for illness or injuries arising out of service. It also allows for access to the war widows pension for surviving partners if their partner’s death is caused by or attributed to the hazardous service. From a government point of view, I suppose, life is about choosing how you actually spend the surplus created by the resource boom in Australia. Some of us consider that these veterans and their widows are entitled to a carve-up of the cake and that is what this debate is about.

That takes me to the 2002 independent government funded Clarke review into the matter, which recommended granting nuclear participants non-warlike hazardous service, which would have brought them under the Veterans Entitlements Act. The review stated that the British atomic test was a unique and extraordinary event in Australian history, with Australian forces potentially exposed to levels of radiation beyond that which would be considered safe, and that is the crux of the debate. It found that it exposed our fellow Australians to levels of radiation beyond that which would today be considered safe, and we cannot run away from that finding and our responsibility as a nation. We thought this was appropriate in the Cold War in the best interests of Australia and Great Britain. Therefore it is appropriate that we, having inherited that responsibility, actually do something about assisting these people in great need. The report went on to state:

The Commonwealth Government should provide these members of Australia’s armed services with compensation coverage under the VEA.

And this was an independent review.

That takes me to a letter from the member for Dunkley, Bruce Billson, to the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Danna Vale, dated 23 August 2002. The member for Dunkley wrote a letter of support for the operation service of nuclear test participants being declared ‘hazardous service’ under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. How the wheel turns. I find it remarkable that the member for Dunkley, who is now the minister, has done a backflip with respect to the issue he was pursuing as a backbencher. It is a remarkable backflip by the now Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who then wrote that the Australian personnel involved in the testing were:

... placed in a life threatening environment. Only now are they and the community experiencing the true consequences of their service, in particular, the devastating impact of exposure on the health and wellbeing of our veterans.

But he went further. He actually likes to write rather flourishing letters, the member for Dunkley and Minister For Veterans’ Affairs. He is not content with penning a few remarks; he actually went further. If he has lost sight of that letter I am more than willing to table a copy for his consideration in response today because it is a very good letter, I might say. It is one that I might have written myself on 23 August 2002 because I also care about these people and a number of them actually reside in my electorate of Batman. That is why I want to remind the minister of what he said on 23 August 2002. Sometimes when people escape the back bench for ministerial office in the oval office section of Parliament House they forget where they come from, and it is our responsibility as the opposition to remind the executive of government of their responsibilities. I am referring to the minister’s letter of 23 August 2002, going to the very issues before the House this morning. He went on to conclude the letter—and I also agree with the well-crafted letter—by stating:

Although the battlefield may be less conventional the threat to life and the danger to which our veterans were exposed amount to an active deployment into harms ways.

It is a remarkable statement for two reasons. Firstly, the government to date not only have refused to implement this recommendation but also have failed to adequately explain why they had not implemented the recommendations of their own independent review of this matter in accordance with the wishes of the minister in his letter to the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Danna Vale, of 23 August 2002. The reclassification would have given test participants and their families greater peace of mind that they would be supported throughout any treatment of illness associated with the tests.

Secondly, it is a remarkable statement because it refers to the participants in the tests as ‘veterans’. We stand here debating the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill 2006, not the Australian Veterans in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Bill—a huge difference. The government has been careful throughout this debate to refer to these people as ‘participants’ and not ‘veterans’. I have little doubt that this is being done deliberately so that the issue is not confused as being a veterans issue and therefore providing a compelling rationale for the participants to receive entitlements under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, because under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act the term ‘veteran’ refers to a service person with qualifying war service, which is exceptionally important.

The Clarke review did not recommend that the test participants’ service qualify as war service but it did recommend that the service be deemed ‘hazardous’. However, the failure of the government and the minister to implement this recommendation as a bare minimum is a total failure of government to properly provide for these Australians who were put at direct risk as a result of the British testing. The disgrace of past shameful deeds is compounded even further when justice is denied to the victims, and this is what is happening through the government’s refusal to properly compensate the nuclear test participants.

It is a disgrace further enunciated by the fact that the United Kingdom War Pensions Agency is now awarding war pensions to nuclear test veterans, and I note here the use of the word ‘veterans’, not ‘participants’. The pension has been extended to those who were at Montebello and Maralinga for cancers of a range of parts of the body, including the colon and prostate, and melanoma and generalised anxiety conditions. Similarly, across the Tasman the New Zealand government has now included the crewmen of the HMNZS Otago in Canterbury who were sent by the New Zealand government to protest the French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in 1973 by providing them with full war pension access. The issue, therefore, for the minister to actually respond to today is: when will the Australian government adopt either the United Kingdom or the New Zealand approach to war pensions for Australian nuclear test veterans and provide those who have suffered with the care and respect they deserve? For so many of the British test participants it is already too late.

This is about making amends, and both major political parties have failed on this front since 1953. We failed to do the right thing in the past. These bills are a step forward, but the job is not yet completed. Therefore, in commending the bills to the House, I simply remind the minister that the job is only partly done. I think, therefore, it is appropriate to enable him to fully and comprehensively respond to the issues that have been raised in this debate. I seek leave to table the member for Dunkley’s letter of 23 August 2002 concerning the need for the then minister to do the right thing on veterans’ entitlements for the people that are very much the subject of this debate, the people that actually carried the burden of that radiation testing over that decade from 1953. I seek leave to table this well-written letter, which in a very succinct way defines what is outstanding from the government’s point of view with respect to these veterans.

Leave granted.