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Tuesday, 5 June 1984
Page: 2505


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(4.24) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

I will explain to the Senate that the reason the Opposition sought to vary the order was to ensure that those papers which we thought required comment today were heard in that order. I thank the Senate for its co-operation. The Government has today tabled an important if interim report, the report of the Expert Committee on the Review of Data on Atmospheric Fallout Arising from British Nuclear Tests in Australia, entitled the Kerr report. The report is one which has been prepared in a very brief time at the request of the Government, only 16 days having been allowed. It is not surprising, therefore, given the complexity of the subject raised, that the recommendation should be for a further inquiry.

I wish to make it clear in this preliminary response to this report that the Opposition takes a stand which is consistent with the stance which has been taken over a long period when issues have been raised relating to tests at Maralinga and elsewhere; namely, that there should be the fullest possible disclosure of any facts which give rise to concern in the Australian community. I draw the attention of the Senate to the record of the previous Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Sir John Carrick, who initiated a number of actions which ensured very detailed follow-up of matters which were raised during his period of responsibility.

The Committee has now recommended that the Government should hold a public inquiry to determine how the conduct and consequences of the British nuclear tests affected the health and well-being of Australians, with emphasis on those Australians who served at nuclear test sites and related facilities and on those , mainly Aborigines, who lived in the region of the tests. The report makes a series of other recommendations and the Opposition at this stage can see no reason why it should not support the recommendations of the Kerr Committee.

However, given the high degree of criticism contained in this interim report of previous actions, I wish to make a number of very quick comments. For a start, I wish to point out to the Senate that, as the Committee acknowledges, it is dealing with issues with the benefit of hindsight. At page 33, the Committee states, looking at the situation from a 1984 perspective:

. . . taking into account the ethos prevailing 30 years ago and the state of technological development during those times, the Committee does not wish to give the impression that it found evidence of widescale incompetence, negligence and disregard for human health and safety.

In a number of passages, it goes on to make the point that it is dealing with the matter with the benefit of hindsight and that it recognises that technology has advanced considerably in the period since the tests were conducted. It also goes on to say at paragraph 82:

Although the Committee had reservations about the use of collective dose- estimates and preferred the critical group concept it concluded that there was negligible hazard from long-range fallout on the Australian population.

Also at paragraph 84, after reviewing evidence from the retrospective epidemiological studies, it states:

No significant associations could be upheld.

That is, no significant associations between participation in the nuclear tests and illness or causes of deaths. Later in the report, dealing with the vexed question of plutonium, which was dealt with in minor trials, it states that data on all aspects of the minor trials are sparse but the Committee is aware of earlier surveys and it supports the need for additional work being done.

I want to point out that in a 1979 report, to which Professor Kerr was a party, the same matters were examined by the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council. I refer to Parliamentary Paper No. 120 of 1979 which points out:

The presence of small low-level fields of external gamma radiation presents little hazard because it is reasonable to suppose people would not wish to stay long periods at such unattractive spots as the former ground zeros, and only minor restrictions are necessary for safety. The same can be said for the risks associated with the plutonium-contaminated areas, but in the case of those areas it would be advisable to ensure that any prolonged dust-raising activity was prevented in occupied areas.

I draw attention to that because Professor Kerr was a party to inquiries about some of the issues which have now been put to further inquiry under him and he is in a sense on the public record about conclusions to which he was a party in 1979. In the very limited time available, I simply wish to say that the Opposition believes that there should be the fullest and most open examination of any issues which are raised. The only caution I would utter is that sometimes we are inclined to examine matters with the wisdom of hindsight and to forget that we have the aid of hindsight as against the knowledge which was available at the time. I draw attention to the record over recent years of the then Government's, the Fraser Government's, attempts to deal with all allegations that were raised in a thorough and fair way. I note that the report of AIRAC of 1983 might be subjected to severe criticism, but I believe that is a matter which will warrant much closer and detailed examination in the future.