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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1745

Senator BOLKUS —I refer the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to today's reports about a settlement of $180m in a legal action on behalf of veterans and their dependants against seven manufacturers of agent orange. I ask the Minister whether it is the opinion of the Government that this settlement result will lead to the chemical companies taking a different attitude to the current Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam.

Senator GIETZELT —The out of court settlement made in the United States of America as a result of a class action initiated by the Vietnam veterans in that country and joined by a group of Australian veterans has been a very significant breakthrough for those who served in Vietnam and those who believe that, as a result of that service, they suffered from exposure to agent orange. I stress in response to Senator Bolkus's question that the decision in the United States is based solely upon the use of dioxin in agent orange, whereas the Royal Commission which the Australian Government has set in train deals with the effects of chemical agents generally, and therefore goes beyond the American decision.

I have heard that the American veterans are critical of the out of court settlement, even though they recognise that it is an important breakthrough in their attempts to win recognition of the state of health from which they suffer as a result of their service in Vietnam. It is the intention of the American veterans to take advantage of legislative and judicial processes in that country to have their families make out a case against the American Government. Whether, of course, the Australian Government would take a similar course against chemical companies is a matter that is much too premature to contemplate at this stage. Therefore, I suggest to Senator Bolkus that we should allow the Royal Commission to carry out its work and, depending upon the terms of settlement that arise out of the American class action case, make a judgment about what action the Australian Government or, for that matter, the Vietnam veterans may take in respect of a decision arrived at in the United States yesterday.