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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 11723

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (11:31): I am happy to support the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Participants in British Nuclear Tests) Bill 2011. As other speakers, including the member for Banks, have said, back in the 1950s and 1960s Australian defence personnel were involved in British testing of nuclear weapons in South Australia, particularly at Maralinga, and also off the coast of Western Australia. They did their jobs bravely and many have paid a very high price in the form of serious health problems. Quite rightly, they deserve compensation for the harm they suffered.

In 2006, the former coalition government introduced legislation to give these ex-service personnel and other civilians, including Federal Police, who worked at the nuclear-testing sites non-liability treatment for all forms of cancer. Those found to be eligible were provided with a Department of Veterans' Affairs white card. We all remember those pictures of the young airmen and soldiers washing down aircraft in nothing more than their boots and shorts—no protective clothing whatsoever. I imagine it was the same for the Federal Police and other civilian officers who carried out associated services around the nuclear sites. As I said, if they were found to be eligible, the Department of Veterans' Affairs provided them with a white card.

This support was further enhanced last year with a new classification of service called the British Nuclear Test Defence Service. This was brought in to provide further compensation to these veterans after they proved a link between any incapacity or illness and their defence service. If such a link is proven, the Repatriation Commission will provide a compensation pension, and if the recipient is already receiving a disability pension at or above 100 per cent of the general rate, they will also be eligible for a gold card. Along with this, if their death can be linked to their defence service, their widow may be eligible to receive a war widows pension and a gold card. These changes were made through amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.

The bill before us today provides further changes to that act and to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. The changes will broaden the eligibility criteria for these benefits. I am a passionate advocate for our veterans and believe that we owe them the very best possible health care and social support in recognition of their service to our nation, and even more so when they carried out that service in hazardous conditions. This bill goes some way towards that goal by giving the Repatriation Commission greater discretion in determining the eligibility for support of former Australian defence personnel who played a role in the British testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. This bill is specifically inclusive of those who were involved in the maintenance, transporting or decontamination of aircraft used in the British nuclear test program. This included RAAF pilots and ground crew who were involved in the testing but who were based outside the immediate testing area.

It is thought that these changes will bring 10 individuals under the umbrella of the two acts, giving them access to health services, benefits and compensation that they previously could not access. Although the number of beneficiaries may be small, this is an important piece of legislation. It signifies more than a mere extension of benefits to a handful of veterans. It is a matter of important recognition. It has taken many years to get to this point of recognising our responsibilities to the men whose health has suffered because of their service to the nation. I feel there are more out there who deserve consideration for extra assistance from the Australian government.

By way of an aside, I would like to show a parallel construction. It is much like the F111 deseal-reseal workers who may be eligible for counselling services, ex gratia payments, compensation and health coverage following a parliamentary inquiry. I feel that former service personnel who worked as petroleum operators deserve consideration for similar assistance. Their cases are in parallel with those who worked under the British nuclear program and those who worked on the F111s. Their activities may not have been exactly analogous, but the principles upon which their compensation should be paid are much the same.

I want to draw the attention of the Main Committee to Mr Bob Ney, a constituent of mine from Hervey Bay, who previously served as both a warrant officer and a commissioned officer in the Army, working as a petroleum operator. His duties included supervising the storage and supply of fuel, the cleaning of storage containers and the maintenance of these devices. In recent years, Mr Ney has carried out extensive personal studies involving numerous former colleagues and service personnel to ascertain what, if any, health problems they experienced working in that petroleum field. He has documented many quite frightening cases. I have actually seen his research. He has case folios on individuals who served in that fuel area, along with photographs of the particular activities that they carried out. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Ney reported that it was quite common for petroleum operators to access storage tanks with little or no protective equipment. They would wear their standard leather boots, cotton uniforms and quite rudimentary breathing masks. You can see the parallel between the nuclear people, the F111 deseal-reseal people and the people in the petroleum field. In hindsight, there was very little knowledge of occupational health and safety and an apparent lack of adequate training in the handling of petroleum products, according to Mr Ney's research. The associated illnesses and conditions he reportedly found amongst former petroleum operators who were exposed to petroleum during the course of their duties included the following conditions: skin conditions, blood abnormalities, chronic medical conditions and even instances of cancer.

I have met with the minister to see whether a study similar to that conducted with respect to the F111 deseal-reseal program can be carried out. I must say that all of Minister Snowdon's communications with me have been courteous and helpful, and he has said that once the F111 study is completed he expects to look into other fuel related matters. While I do not doubt his sincerity for one moment, I think it is important that the work of people like Bob Ney be front and centre of the government's priorities. It is only right that people who have served our nation in the armed forces and who then require special medical treatment and compensation because of the specific duties they performed receive it in a fair, timely and appropriate manner. If they have been exposed to toxic environments as part of their professional work duties, they cannot be treated in later life as some form of military flotsam and jetsam to be put conveniently to one side. I thank the member for Banks for saying that. He said that people cannot just be put to one side and that we cannot turn a blind eye to some just because we hope to avoid a bit of compensation. These people should not have to fight to have their cases heard and nor should they have to claw their way back into the arena of public opinion to get a hearing.

Whether it is these 10 people to whom we extend the Commonwealth benefits dealt with in this bill today, whether it is the people in the F111 deseal-reseal activities, or whether it is the people who carried out fuel duties for the RAAF and the Army, who have not yet been recognised, there is a continuum there, and that continuum carries with it a responsibility that we do something about it.

I thought that it would be wise in this debate today to put Bob Ney and his colleagues on the agenda.