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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 4319


Senator XENOPHON (12:36 PM) —I will be supporting the second reading amendment of Senator Ludlam and I join with him in his sentiments and his concerns. These British atomic weapons detonation tests that were conducted at Emu Field, Maralinga in South Australia and the Monte Bello Islands off the west coast of Western Australia were conducted to enable the United Kingdom to develop nuclear fission bombs and later nuclear fusion, or hydrogen, bombs; and the tests were carried out with the full cooperation of the Australian government under Prime Minister Menzies. More than 17,000 Australian soldiers and civilians were directly involved in the tests and assessment of the fallout from the tests. Many of these Australians have gone on to suffer a range of illnesses as a result of dangerous and continued exposure to high levels of radiation from cancers to genetic diseases inherited by their children. In May 2007, Professor Al Rowland, from Massey University in New Zealand, published a scientific paper on chromosome damage, providing hard evidence of the relationship between the exposure to the ionising radiation from the atomic blasts and certain cancers and birth defects.

Today only 2,500 ex-service men and women out of the 8,000 who were involved in the nuclear testings are still alive. Over the past few months that I have been approached on this issue, I have been contacted by veterans who were involved in the nuclear testing. One of them was Geoffrey, who was 23 years old when he served at Maralinga with the Air Force. He arrived in the middle of 1961 just after two major bombs had been tested. During his 12 months on the base, tests on smaller nuclear weapons were continuing as well as assessment of the fallout from these bombs. Geoff tells me how he recalls walking in the dust, wearing nothing more than a singlet and shorts. He admits he volunteered to go there but says had he known of the risks, had he been told about the risks, he would have stayed away as far as possible. Geoff has survived a brain tumour, and both his son and grandson suffer severe health effects. Geoff blames these illnesses on his time at Maralinga. Sadly, Geoff’s story is one of many. Some veterans have told me about how they did nothing more than turn their backs for mere moments before turning back around to watch the aftermath of the explosion.

I am pleased that through this bill the government has finally introduced one of the recommendations of the Clarke review to recognise veterans in the atomic tests as ‘non-warlike hazardous’ under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. That is a good thing. Under this amendment, veterans will be able to access a disability pension and healthcare treatment for conditions arising from their service, and war widows and widowers can access pensions where the death of the service person is attributable to that service.

Another thing that needs to be said is that in 1993 the government accepted a ₤20 million ex gratia payment, valued at approximately $100 million today, from Britain. The deal was negotiated by the then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Simon Crean, and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans. The government argued that this fund was to go towards repatriation of the land; however, in a speech to the House in October 2006, Minister Crean said:

We successfully got the British government to make a contribution of some ₤20 million—an outcome that was designed to, in its own words, support future claims for compensation for participants.

In other words that fund should have been used to give direct compensation for participants, not used just for cleaning up the land. He went on to say that ‘it was recognised that there could be future claims’. As I understand it, that money has solely gone for rehabilitation of the land and not for compensation of victims.

There is now a court case in the UK which Australian veterans are seeking to join—it is a very difficult and expensive case—so that they can get lump-sum compensation, and I wish them well in that class action. Unfortunately, even if they were to be successful in this lawsuit, under the agreement of the 1993 ex gratia payment, any compensation may have to be paid to the Australian government. That is an area of real concern. In any event, I hope that they are successful with their claim.

I commend the government for at least acting on the Clarke review recommendations. We need to go further, as Senator Ludlam said, but at least this is a first step to assist veterans.