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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 11718

Ms HALL (ShortlandGovernment Whip) (11:06): I always enjoy following an opposition speaker when they support legislation the government is putting before the parliament. It is a rare and refreshing turn of events. I thank the shadow minister for his support and at the same time I would like to commend the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Participants in British Nuclear Tests) Bill 2011 to the House.

I have a long corporate memory when it comes to nuclear and atomic veterans. When I first came to this parliament it was very difficult for any nuclear or atomic veteran to receive any recognition or any compensation for illnesses that they received as a result of the time they were in areas where they were exposed to atomic waste. I had one constituent in particular who was in the RAAF and was at Maralinga. At the time he was there he worked in trucks. When the atomic testing was on he would go out and then come back covered in dust. He would just walk in and throw his clothes in the washing machine. There was no testing or monitoring to see whether or not he suffered any illnesses or side-effects from his exposure. He actually developed acute myeloid leukaemia. An interesting aside to this is that his wife has developed breast cancer and their first child was still-born. I find it very difficult not to join the dots there and in some way attribute it to the time that he spent at Maralinga.

He has had a long battle over the time to get recognition. When I first met him he received no recognition at all. I pay tribute to the fact that, in 2006, legislation was passed through the parliament that changed the situation slightly. But still he has many battles to face in relation to acceptance of his illness and for the fact that although he may be in remission at the moment there is the psychological impact of his illness and the impact it has on his life, and the fact that his wife is very sick. I do not think it is treated in the same way as other conditions. The bar is just that little bit higher, and I think that is inappropriate.

The legislation before us today amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Testing (Treatment) Act 2006 to enable the Repatriation Commission to determine by legislative instrument additional eligibility criteria for British nuclear defence service under the VEA and nuclear test participation under the APBNT(T)A. This will ensure that there is equitable access to benefits for Australian participants, be they service personnel or not, in the British nuclear tests that took place. It will involve maintenance and decontamination or transport of aircraft which were contaminated as a result of the British nuclear tests.

The constituent I spoke about was actually lucky, if you can say that anyone who was involved in that situation was lucky, in that he was a member of the RAAF. He has been able to get assistance earlier than he otherwise would have. But many people worked out there in different capacities and were not part of the services. The legislation before us will give some equity to those people who were doing their work and suffered as a result of the British nuclear tests.

The APBNT(T)A provides government funded, non-liability healthcare treatment for cancer in the form of a white card for those people who were involved in the British nuclear test program in Australia. Also, disability pensions, healthcare treatment and a range of other benefits are provided for former Defence Force personnel. I reiterate that that was not the case for a very long period of time. It is the case now and I think it is really important for that assistance to be extended, and this legislation does that. I do not see how any member of this parliament could object to the legislation. The amendment to the VEA allows newly-found eligible assistance participants to have their claim treated in the same way as they would have had they been eligible in the first instance. Once again, that is the correct way to handle it, and it shows a little compassion for those people who have suffered for such a very long time. As I previously mentioned, they have suffered not only physically but psychologically. People do not know when they may exhibit side-effects from their exposure to the British nuclear test program. Governments should be very mindful of the fact that many people suffer as a consequence of decisions made in the past, and this bill recognises this.

To run through a few facts and figures, 3,235 Navy personnel, 1,658 Army personnel, 3,223 RAAF personnel and 8,907 civilians, including 10 Indigenous people, were involved in the British nuclear test program. Many of those 8,907 civilians are still surviving, and the bill will give them access to similar treatment and benefits as those personnel in the defence forces. I commend the legislation to the House and congratulate the minister on having the foresight to extend the eligibility to this program in the way that he has.