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Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Page: 9867

Mr SIMPKINS (10:54 AM) —Although I am not a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, with my Defence Force background I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the report and on the circumstances surrounding this matter. As an Army officer I recall visits to RAAF Base Amberley, the home of F111s, and seeing F111s in the sky on other occasions in connection with my duties. Even at the 2000 Olympics, the sight of an F111 fighter-bomber was impressive. From an Army perspective our understanding of the F111 was that, even though it was quite old, it was nevertheless a highly effective and potent force multiplier in terms of stand-off attacks as well as close air support. When I saw those aircraft—and I am sure that when the crowd at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics saw the F111 dump fuel and light it up—there was no knowledge of the other threat that has now been revealed. I am talking about the health problems that have been revealed so starkly in this report.

As we have seen in this report, the need to repair the unique fuel storage system on the F111 and the manner in which those repairs were accomplished—in an environment not replicated on any other RAAF aircraft—is at the very core of this inquiry. Between 1973 and 2000, toxic chemicals were used to strip back and replace sealant inside the fuel tanks to avoid fuel tank leaks. Three squadrons were involved: No. 1 Squadron, No. 6 Squadron and, before them, No. 482 Squadron. For the task, airframe fitters, later known as aircraft technicians, climbed inside the fuel tanks and had to strip off the old seals and then reseal the joints from the inside to ensure that no fuel would leak out of the fuel tank. But to accomplish this task they were not provided with adequate protective clothing. Even with the protective clothing that they were given, gloves, it was the common practice that they removed them in order to more effectively carry out the task. It has been established that the chemicals were absorbed through the skin. Those involved are 44 per cent more likely to get cancer and also have a history of kidney stones, kidney problems, psoriasis, depression, hypertension, rectal failure and chronic fatigue. The list goes on. These problems have been linked by studies to the work carried out in the deseal/reseal duty undertaken by airmen in the RAAF.

I understand from the report that, unlike most inquiries conducted by parliamentary committees, this inquiry went well beyond broad policy issues. At its core has been a consideration of specific cases directly impacting on upwards of 2,000 ex-service personnel and many more family members, all of whom have been exposed to the chemicals in some shape or form. It must also be remembered that, apart from the chemical being absorbed into the skin of the airmen, the fuel residue was soaked into their overalls and that clothing, with that combination of liquids, was then handled by wives at home when the uniforms were washed. The other aspect was contact with the husband. When sharing the same bed with his wife, the toxic chemicals came out of the pores of the worker’s skin and transferred to his partner. This has also caused issues for both of them in terms of wanting to have and raise healthy and normal children.

As for doing the right thing by all involved, the report says:

Without doubt, the ex-gratia scheme announced by the government in 2005 was the focus of many submissions and the cause of many complaints. Whilst it was intended to provide assistance with specified healthcare costs and a one-off financial payment for some, and did, it also created a series of anomalies that angered an already distressed group of people.

One of the problems with the ex-gratia payments was that Defence did not have records accurately identifying every person who had been involved. Although the lack of accurate records served to undermine the eligibility of many of those affected for the original ex-gratia payment, this situation has been exacerbated by the inconsistent approach taken by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Naturally, examples of inconsistency do nothing more than increase the feelings of frustration and resentment. As a result, the report recommended that in certain circumstances statutory declarations be used to establish entitlements. For deceased estates, a statutory declaration from the next of kin should apply with the same guidelines as those set out in the report. Considerable time and effort has been given to the health research involving the F111 issues. As the report makes clear, this research does not support some of the concerns of the workers. However, other research does raise other potentially serious matters that will require further investigation.

Some of those in the F111 community seek substantial compensation payments. Beyond the no-guilt statutory compensation schemes and the ex-gratia scheme payments, any additional payments have been determined to be a matter for common law. The report itself, Sealing a just outcome: report from the inquiry into RAAF F-111 deseal/reseal workers and their families, gives 18 recommendations, which range from removing some time limits and other constraints, to helping to make more people eligible for the ex-gratia payments, to group counselling for families and the need for additional OH&S staff and suggestions on change.

Air Vice Marshall Brown perhaps best summarised it in the first public hearing when he said:

… the Air Force hurt a large number of our people involved in F111 fuel tank maintenance between 1973 and 2000. We are grateful for this chance to look at what has been done to help them and we believe that more could and should be done.

The reality for me is that I make my comments from a distance, never having been in the Air Force and not having the ability to empathise with those affected by both health issues and the frustrations of seeking resolution through the system. I believe that real progress can now be made and I hope that the changes will provide for the men and their families, as well as for the widows, some comfort as we make progress towards a final resolution. I also congratulate the chair and the members of the joint standing committee for their report and all those who offered evidence to the committee as part of the inquiry.