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Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Page: 11725

Mr SLIPPER (FisherDeputy Speaker) (11:42): I think it is important to adopt the principle that a wartime Labor Prime Minister enunciated—and these are my words, not his—that a grateful nation really ought to make sure that it pays debts to those people to whom we owe so much.

The reality is that because the conditions under which people served in conjunction with the British nuclear tests were so varied, and there were so many people and so many different categories, it is impossible when legislation is first enacted to cover the situations of all persons who deserve the protection of Australian law and indeed who deserve the protection of the veterans legislation. That is why I want to commend successive governments for being prepared to say that circumstances have changed, that new information has come to light, and that consequently the eligibility criteria ought to be widened. I believe that this bipartisan approach is something that all Australians would support.

We all know that between 1952 and 1963 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in Australia off the coast of Western Australia in the Montebello Islands and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. I would imagine that in 2011 no government would tolerate nuclear tests taking place in Australia, and nor would the Australian people. In principle we do not support nuclear tests taking place anywhere. But these tests did occur with the full agreement of the then government of Australia and they would have enjoyed broad support from the Australian people. Various amendments to acts of parliament have extended over a period the eligibility criteria for access to benefits, and as more medical and other knowledge becomes available it is only appropriate that we ought to continue to include others within the net of those people who are able to seek redress. After all, I do not believe that, at the time this service was conducted, the knowledge we have today on the adverse health effects could have been apparent. Today, were people involved in similarly hazardous activities then many more precautions would be taken. The honourable member for Hinkler, in his contribution, mentioned workplace health and safety. I suspect that, during the time these weapons tests were conducted, while the workplace health and safety standard then believed to be necessary was obviously followed, the extreme medical conditions suffered by so many people who served their nation in this way could not possibly have been envisaged. And it would be appalling were the government of the day to say, 'Well, too bad.' That is not the Australian way; the Australian way is to look at people who have served their nation, whether they be Commonwealth police, now members of the Australian Federal Police; whether they be protective service officers; whether they be people actually involved in the tests themselves; whether they be people who were involved in transporting material. All of those people played a very important part in making sure that the purposes of those tests were successful. And if, as a unwitting consequence, their health is adversely affected, as so many people have tragically been adversely affected in a health sense, it is vital that a compassionate nation recognises the debt that we owe these people who have made such an important contribution to their nation.

It is also very healthy that, in 2011, we do not in our community say that we do not support nuclear tests so therefore we are not going to give the medical assistance and other compensation necessary to give redress to people who were involved in those tests in Australia. One cannot reinvent history. The reality is that these tests took place in Australia. They were British tests but they were tests that took place with the full support of the Australian government and, in my view, the Australian people at the time. So I want to commend the minister and the government for bringing this legislation into the chamber. I anticipate that, as more information with respect to service and medical conditions becomes available, ministers in the future will bring in other amendments as required to further widen the field of those people able to access benefits. I commend the bill to the chamber and I congratulate the government for introducing it on this occasion.

Debate interrupted; adjournment proposed and negatived.