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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7165

Mr BEVIS (10:11 AM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee’s report from the inquiry into RAAF F-111 deseal/reseal workers and their families entitled, Sealing a just outcome.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.

Mr BEVIS —by leave—The sight of an F-111 with its afterburners blazing has provided excitement for a generation of Australians and an assurance that the highest priority of defending our nation was being met. However, those who worked to keep these aircraft in service for the defence of our nation were being exposed to health risks which, for some, were life-threatening. In testimony to the inquiry, Air Vice Marshal Brown noted:

… the Air Force hurt a large number of our people involved in F111 fuel tank maintenance between 1973 and 2000. We are grateful for this chance to look at what has been done to help them and we believe that more could and should be done.

The recommendations in this report are intended to produce a fair and just outcome to help many of those who the RAAF correctly note were hurt. In the very limited time that is available to me today it is not possible even to summarise the key points in this report, much less the thousands of pages of submissions, exhibits and transcripts received by it.

At the very core of most complaints were the policy flaws, inconsistencies and confusion embedded in the ex gratia scheme established in 2005 for some of those involved in F-111 fuel tank repairs. The exclusion from the scheme of about 2,000 personnel who undertook pick-and-patch work in squadrons, whilst providing benefits to those doing identical work in other units, caused understandable anger. In addition, the 2005 scheme provided payments to people who reported no ill-health effects at all, whilst denying the same benefits to workers whose health had suffered. That simply aggravated the anger.

In truth, there was no link at all between health problems and access to the scheme. The painfully slow and at times indifferent handling of concerns by the agencies responsible also produced despair. During one of the public hearings I commented that the scheme was born of a fuzzy logic, shrouded in misleading spin and then administered in confusion. Now at the conclusion of the process, I can confirm that is still very much my view.

The committee’s recommendations ensure that access to the ex gratia scheme is based on the work undertaken, not the unit in which the work was done, not the year in which an application was made and not the year in which a former worker died. Those former F111 personnel involved in civil legal actions will of course be required to meet the necessary legal tests based on the facts of their own case. The committee will, however, be seeking regular reports from Defence on progress in finalising these matters in the hope that they can be concluded in a reasonable time frame.

Increased counselling support for some families is also important in helping those affected to move on with their lives and is the subject of recommendation in this report. In particular, the report recommends an expansion of counselling services to include group counselling—something which the families have identified they need; something which Defence, DVA and governments of all persuasions in the past have recognised for others in similar situations.

The report also makes recommendations about the need for DVA to review its training. I want to refer to one example that was drawn to our attention in the public hearings in Brisbane, where a former defence personnel member and his wife came forward. This particular gentleman had sought access to the ex gratia scheme. He, along with others, had suffered both physical and mental health issues. He was in hospital on suicide watch when the Department of Veterans’ Affairs thought it would be opportune and appropriate to advise him that his application had been rejected. It astonishes all of us that the considered view of DVA could be to provide that quite shattering bad advice to a former RAAF officer when he was on suicide watch in a hospital. There is a need for DVA to review its training procedures and the committee makes recommendations accordingly.

During the course of our investigations, important system-wide problems were also identified and they require urgent attention. For example, eight years ago the F111 board of inquiry recommended that Defence should specify certain medical positions as requiring qualifications in occupational medicine, yet today, amazingly, Defence has only one person engaged full time on that vital task. How can that be when we hear so often that our men and women are our greatest asset—and indeed they are—yet eight years after the board of inquiry said Defence needed to improve the delivery of services in occupational health and safety and to have appropriately qualified medical officers, there is one full-time officer in the entire ADF?

The committee was encouraged to review the work of Professor Hopkins and some comments he made in a book on the problem of support for workers within the ADF. Professor Hopkins was also a member of the F111 board of inquiry, so he has very detailed knowledge of the circumstances that were under review by the committee. I want to refer to one part of the report, quoting Professor Hopkins. He said that, shortly after the board of inquiry, a striking example came to light of the way the priority of platforms over people had operated—in this case in the Australian Navy during the Vietnam War. The Navy’s ships needed to draw water from overboard for both drinking and use in the ship’s boilers. The water had to be distilled before use to remove the salt. Navy patrols spent considerable amounts of time in estuarine waters in Vietnam which were known to be contaminated with a range of substances. The Navy therefore chose to not use the distilled water from the estuaries for its boilers lest it damage the ship’s engines. The water for boilers was to be produced only from pristine water offshore. The distilled water from the estuaries could however be used as drinking water. It was not fit for the ships but it was fine for the sailors!

He went on to note that, in fact, the estuaries were contaminated with Agent Orange. Ironically the distillation process served only to concentrate these substances, and that is what the sailors were drinking. This, I have to say, is a serious, shocking problem. For me, as somebody who has participated in many Defence issues for many years in this parliament, this is deeply worrying. Professor Hopkins concluded:

Until the Air Force puts the same effort into securing expert safety advice as it does into securing expert advice on materials, until it applies the same level of quality control to ensuring the safety of maintenance workers as it applies to ensuring the adequacy of maintenance processes, it will remain vulnerable to the criticism that it puts platforms ahead of people.

This has to change and it has to change now. If it does not, we will see repeats of the tragic circumstances that were the subject of this inquiry. An essential step in that process is to expand the medical positions focused on occupational medicine.

The report also reviews a wide range of research on the possible health impacts of fuel tank work. It recommends further research with respect to the implications of working with aviation fuels. This is important and it has implications well beyond the F111 community—indeed, it has implications well beyond Defence—but it is important, given the evidence presented to the committee, that that research be undertaken to ensure that not just Defence personnel but those who are working with aviation turbine fuel are doing so in a safe manner that is acceptable in the 21st century.

I repeat in these comments my thanks to the Defence and DVA staff for their assistance throughout this inquiry. I especially want to thank the senior RAAF personnel, whose participation and support were invaluable. The willingness of Air Vice Marshal Brown to attend every inquiry did not go unnoticed and was appreciated. I also record my personal recognition of the work of the CDF, who instituted the board of inquiry as then Chief of Air Force. Given the fact that so much information had been around for many years, I think it took a degree of leadership—which he exhibited—to commence this process, without which we would not be standing here today reviewing these matters. I commend the CDF for the decisions he took as Chief of Air Force. Indeed, at the time he took those I was the shadow minister. I took the opportunity then to acknowledge the right and proper steps that he had taken, and I do so again.

I thank the members of my committee who participated in this inquiry in a constructive and bipartisan matter. I especially thank the member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, who was with me at all of the hearings and whose advice I appreciated. I hope I have not given you the kiss of death, Stuie! I thank the staff of the secretariat—Dr Margot Kerley, Colonel Paul Nothard, who worked with the committee throughout last year, and Wing Commander David Ashworth, who joined the inquiry this year—for their contributions. The advice that we receive from all is greatly appreciated. The Defence subcommittee could not function nearly as well as it does were it not for the participation of the defence advisers. Over the many years I have been in this parliament we have been fortunate to have high-quality defence advisers. It is appreciated by the committee and should be acknowledged by this parliament.

Special thanks are due to the inquiry secretary, Mr Muz Ali. It fell to Muz to deal with many hundreds of phone calls, emails and approaches from a wide range of people, not always in the easiest of circumstances. He also had the daily task of getting on top of what was a very complex, detailed, difficult and in some cases quite technical area. He had to put up with me as a chairperson annoying the hell out of him on a regular basis. I am very grateful for the way in which Muz did his work and wish him well now that he has moved on to other, bigger and better things in this parliament.

Most importantly, I again record my thanks to the F111 fuel tank workers and their families. We all—especially all of us in this parliament but also all of us as Australians—firstly owe them our thanks for ensuring that one of the critical defence platforms available to Australia’s defence in the last generation was serviceable and was able to be deployed in the defence of our nation. Their work enabled that to occur. They are due our thanks for that especially. I also thank them for their patience. When this inquiry was commenced I rather optimistically thought that we could complete it within six or seven months. It became plain as we got into the details that that was an unrealistic time frame. I know that many of the people who were involved in the F111 community and who were very interested in this inquiry were concerned when they saw the time frame of this inquiry shifting out. I can assure them that the only reason that time frame shifted was to enable the committee to thoroughly and properly go through all of the details and information, to follow all the leads, to try to find the records and to look at all of the suggestions we had as to how there may be records in place. Sadly, none of those produced the necessary outcomes. One of the frustrations that we had to contend with, as has everybody else who has looked at this issue, was the total absence of records for most of the period in question—they simply do not exist. But I do want to record my thanks for the patience of those who were most closely involved in this work and who have followed the work of this inquiry. I thank them for their willingness to allow us to get on with the task on an extended time frame.

My overriding concern in this inquiry has been to ensure that the health care and the support needs of those adversely affected by their service on F111s are properly met. I believe that the recommendations in this report do much to achieve that outcome. I very strongly commend the report to the House and to the government.