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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3007

Senator GILES —My question is directed to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. It relates to the claim in last Saturday's Four Corners program on Australian Broadcasting Commission television that the Vietnamese Government has undertaken a detailed study of its war veterans which reveals a strong link between service in areas likely to have been sprayed with chemicals such as agent orange and major health problems such as cancer and an abnormally high level of birth defect among veterans' children. I ask the Minister: Will the Royal Commission on the Use and Effect of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam investigate this study as well as any other available evidence of a link between chemical spraying and health problems amongst the Vietnamese population?

Senator GIETZELT —It is true that the Four Corners program dealing with the problems facing those who served in Vietnam made a number of allegations and drew a number of matters to the attention of both my Department and myself. Naturally, it has drawn to our attention the matters that Senator Giles has raised with me. The program indicated that information was provided to Ministers of conservative governments which certainly was inadequate and may well prove to have been incorrect. However, so far as the Royal Commission is concerned, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hayden, was in Vietnam in June of this year the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Mr Thach, indicated his Government's willingness to co-operate in the Royal Commission's inquiry and to make available evidence such as the study to which the honourable senator referred. Similarly, the American Government has offered to make available to the Commission such information as would assist it to reach some definite conclusions.

As I understand it, the Vietnamese study shows that the children of North Vietnamese veterans are four times as likely to suffer from birth defects, if their father served in the south of Vietnam prior to their birth, as is the case if service was confined to the north where no chemical spraying took place. In addition, I am informed that the Vietnamese have undertaken scientific investigations which also claim to substantiate this particular link. Obviously, the Commission will examine these claims very closely. If the claims are soundly based they will be of central importance to the Commission's deliberations. As a result of that, the Royal Commissioner has required the junior counsel of the Royal Commission, Mr Max Kimber, to leave Australia on 5 December for a one-week trip to Vietnam to undertake a preliminary assessment of this evidence. Early next year the Royal Commissioner, His Honour Mr Justice Phillip Evatt, plans to go to Vietnam to investigate the evidence thoroughly. However, Mr Kimber's role will be to advise the Commissioner on the basis of his investigations on how long the Commissioner's trip should be and the type and number of support staff, such as scientific experts, who should accompany him. It will depend upon the initial trip as to what evidence is of particular value to the Commission. I emphasise to the Senate that the Government is concerned to constrain costs in conducting the inquiry. We have accordingly sent a junior counsel to prepare the way for the eventual visit of the Commissioner.