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Thursday, 22 August 1985
Page: 177


Senator COLLARD (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(3.05) —I wish to open my comments on the final report of the Royal Commission on the Use and Effect of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam by picking up one segment of the report. It was discussing a particular day when it tried to speed things up and so do something innovative and cost effective and save time. A journalist following the Commissioner's work wrote an article on it which appeared in the first edition of a major city daily. It was axed from the second, third and later editions and the journalist, upon asking her superiors why, was told: `We don't want any good news about royal commissions'. I guess that is indicative of this whole Agent Orange issue. Nobody wanted any good news about it right from the start.

I shall give a little history of the chemical. In 1896 chemicals were first used for the control of weeds. In 1921 an aircraft was first used for the dispersal of such chemicals. In 1926 we had the finding of plant hormones with the resultant use of hormone weed sprays and in the 1950s they became one of the major weapons that farmers had in this country and many other countries against weeds. I myself was involved in the control of lantana, noogoora burr, groundsel and that sort of thing.

Hormone weed sprays, or agent orange as it has become known-it is a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T-was used as a defoliant in Vietnam. Insecticides were also sprayed. The opponents of the Vietnam war and the ecologists opposed its use from the middle 1960s onwards. Because of that very intensive research was undertaken into the use of such herbicides as a defoliant, which indicated that there were no toxic hazards although the chemicals were very effective as defoliants. At about that time Vietnamese newspapers started reporting birth defects, and this was taken up by the media in the United States of America. Some time later a veterans counsellor in the United States of America-unqualified, I might add-stated that from observations she believed that Agent Orange had caused cancer in one person. She then blamed Agent Orange for other non-specific symptoms as well. From that report a television special was made entitled: `Agent Orange-Vietnam's Deadly Fog'. It spread such claims very far and very wide.

The supposed problem of Agent Orange was brought to Australia by the Rolling Stone magazine. The Australian Press took up the story and sensationalised it and away it went. I might say that at the time farmers were still using it, and they are still using it today. It is a very great weapon in the control of brigalow regrowth in my area, for instance. Nonetheless, the matter had been sensationalised and away the story went. Some academics and some lawyers jumped on the bandwagon. The unfortunate part of this was the distress that it caused to those who came back from Vietnam with war-related problems, both physical and mental. The Senate gave a reference to the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment. That Committee conducted an inquiry into this matter and reported to the Senate in 1982. I will refer to some of its findings very shortly.

Nonetheless, the ALP, which was then in Opposition, took up the cause and went to an election on the basis that notwithstanding that there had been a Senate report, it would set up a royal commission. The turmoil in the minds of people associated with Vietnam veterans was still there. Indeed, the present Government stands condemned for keeping it going. Indeed, this report vindicates what our own Senate Standing Committee said at that time-but more of that later. It should be put on record that the present Government has wasted time and taxpayer's money and has quite unnecessarily upset those Vietnam veterans with problems which they thought were attributable to the effects of Agent Orange. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Gietzelt, when he set up the Royal Commission, said:

Notwithstanding the Committee's conclusion, among other things, that it was unlikely that the majority of Australian troops were directly or indirectly exposed to the herbicides used by the United States forces in Vietnam, the Government believes the matter is still not resolved.

Then, in a Press release issued by Senator Gietzelt on Saturday, 14 May 1983, he stated:

. . . last year the Australian Labor Party made this proposal part of its official platform, and in February this year we went to the people as part of our election package.

He went on to criticise the attitude of the previous Government on this matter:

For almost four years your Association has been bringing this matter before the public and calling for an inquiry, he said, talking to Vietnam veterans. What was the response of the government of the day? They first ignored the whole issue, they refused to admit that there was any element of doubt in the matter, they stonewalled, they hedged and all the while more and more conflicting evidence came to light.

It certainly did not come to light to the Royal Commission. He continued:

When forced by the sheer weight of evidence to act, the previous Government again failed to do anything substantial. Its attempts were confused and half-hearted. Senator Gietzelt told the VVAA that in just eight weeks the Government had done more on the issue than the previous Government had managed to do in three and a half years.

The Government certainly set up the Royal Commission, but let us look at what it said. In the meantime, the Australian veterans health study mortality report came to light, which vindicated our own Senate Standing Committee's findings.

The Royal Commission has now reported, and at 3 o'clock this afternoon it became a public document. The first comments to which I should like to refer relate to dosage. I refer to page XV-13:

Any dose of TCDD--

in other words dioxin--

received in Vietnam would have been lower than that received in industrial accidents, where no long term effects have been found.

I refer to paragraph (12):

The Commission concludes that:

(i) contrary to popular belief, only a very limited number of Australian servicemen were ever directly exposed to `colour-coded' herbicides such as Agent Orange; even the most direct likely exposure would not have produced an absorbed toxic dose of the most toxic substance;

(ii) all servicemen were indirectly exposed in one way or another but the dose level resulting from such indirect exposure or exposures is so minute that it may, without doubt, be ignored;

(iii) all servicemen were exposed to insecticides which, far from causing adverse health effects, prevented health problems which may have otherwise arisen in the Vietnam environment.

Paragraph (13) reads:

In short, the Commission concludes that the exposure of Australians to chemical agents did not produce dosage levels which would be likely to cause any long-term health effects.

The Royal Commission deals with the subject of health on pages XV-16 and XV-17. Paragraph (5) states quite blandly:

Vietnam veterans are significantly healthier than the Australian male population.

Paragraph (11) states:

There is no neurotoxic effect operating on veterans. That is to say their brains and nervous systems have not been organically damaged by chemical agents used in Vietnam.

One of the big problems has been the concern about the toxic effects on the children of fathers coming back from the Vietnam war-in other words, birth defects. It is interesting to compare the comments of the Royal Commission with those of the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment on this subject. The Royal Commission on page XV-19, paragraph (11) states:

The hypothesis that exposure of fathers to chemicals in Vietnam caused birth defects in children conceived in Australia is fanciful.

I quote page 203 of the report of the Senate Standing Committee, chaired by Senator Jessop, as follows:

The Committee concludes that it is highly improbable that the birth abnormalities reported among the children of Vietnam veterans are the result of the veterans' exposure to pesticides while serving in Vietnam. The birth abnormalities reported are primarily teratogenic in origin and, as such, are almost always produced as a result of exposure of the mother to toxic agents while pregnant. The Committee believes that there is no biologically plausible mechanism whereby the father's exposure in Vietnam can lead, years later, to exposure of the foetus in the uterus, as would be required to produce teratogenic abnormalities.

There we have the two tie-ups. The major cause of distress in this whole absurd exercise which we have been going through over past years relates to birth defects, but, what is more, young mothers, wives of Vietnam veterans, are not game to have any more children, because of what has been bandied around this country by those who have been seeking to pander to those who think they have been hurt by Agent Orange. This has been a terrible thing to inflict on these people who came back from that war.

One other matter inquired into by the Royal Commission was the subject of cancer. On page XV-21 the Commission says in paragraphs (7) and (8):

Cancer death rates for Vietnam veterans are lower than the general male population. The cancer rates of veteran and non-veteran National Serviceman are virtually identical.

The Commonwealth Institute of Health Mortality Report mentions something similar. I quote from page ix, paragraph 1:

There was no statistically significant diufference in the death rates from cancer between veterans and non-veterans. In particular there was no statistically significant difference in the death rates from soft tissue sarcoma or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Other studies have indicated that both cancers are possibly caused by phenoxyacetic acid herbicides. These herbicides were sprayed in Vietnam. However, the length of follow-up may have been too brief . . . . for an excuse of deaths from cancer to be evident. There was no statistically significant difference in death rates from motor vehicle accidents . . . . or in death rates from suicides and self-inflicted injury . . . .

The mortality section goes on to deal with that subject. Therefore the report is saying that in regard to cancer there are no added probabilities that Vietnam veterans suffer from that disease. As a matter of fact, the report concludes that they suffer from less disease.

Another problem related to the area of mental health. The Royal Commission mentions that after every major war-and it is significant that the Senate Standing Committee also arrived at the same conclusion-there are mental well-being casualties. In World War I it was known as shell shock; after World War II it was known as going psycho or troppo, et cetera. The Royal Commission report in XV (24) deals with this. Of course there are problems and we all acknowledge that but they are not caused by chemicals used in Vietnam; they are caused by stress. On page 204 of the Senate Standing Committee report the Committee took up this point. I quote the first part of paragraph 5 on page 203:

The Committee concludes that, on the available evidence; it is unlikely that the psychiatric disorders reported by Vietnam veterans are caused by exposure to potentially harmful chemicals whilst in Vietnam.

. . . .

The Committee has been impressed by the striking similiarities of the veterans' disorders to the psychiatric disorders found among the veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and Arab-Israeli wars. These similiarities include such symptoms as the rage reaction on which the VVAA has placed a great deal of emphasis.

Once again we have the Royal Commission some $4m later vindicating the work done by the Senate Standing Committee.


Senator Chipp —How did you vote on the onus of proof legislation?


Senator COLLARD —If I may say, Mr Deputy President, the Australian Democrats are really running for cover because if any group has moved around the community and stirred this up to the detriment of those people who came back from Vietnam and their supporters it is the Democrats. Now the chickens are really coming home to roost.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! There are too many interjections on my left. Senator Collard does not need the support he is getting.


Senator COLLARD —Thank you for that vote of confidence, Mr Deputy President. There has also been criticism of the Department. Indeed, a Department as big as the Department of Veterans' Affairs does come in for criticism when things go wrong. The Royal Commission does find on page XV-36:

General complaints of departmental bias and misconduct made by VVAA were closely analysed. In general terms they were quite unwarranted.

Paragraphs 11 and 12 state:

The high client approval rating of the system and the small number of complaints establish that in general DVA functions well.

In particular, standards of courtesy, helpfulness and sympathy are high.

When the system does break down (as any system with more than 3 million client contacts a year must), complaint procedures are thorough and efficient.

Of course there were problems for the people who came back from the Vietnam War. There were problems for people who came back from any war but there were peculiar problems for Vietnam veterans. It was an unpopular war and in fairness to the Evatt Royal Commission it has taken up all these factors. It points out that one had no clearly defined enemy and that women and children could well have been the enemy, but the worst aspect was the way the veterans were treated by the community when they came back to this country, particularly in the major cities. If that did not cause stress, on top of all the traumas associated with those who have to go off to war, nothing would.

We find that $4m later-after pandering by this Government to a minority group in the community and keeping in ferment all the problems-those problems could have been laid to rest some time ago. That is $4m that could have been used by the Vietnam Counselling Service, a service that was set up by Senator Messner, a service that is doing a lot of good amongst the Vietnam veteran community. I believe that the $4m could well have gone to expanding that service, to repatriation hospitals or whatever. We have what I hope is the last chapter in this sorry saga of Agent Orange. I hope that the Government accepts the findings and the major recommendations of the Royal Commission set up by this Government and that we as a community acknowledge that there are problems for the Vietnam veterans and that the veterans must be treated with sympathy. We must all work within the system to see that the veterans are treated properly through all the avenues that are available, and even open up new avenues if that is necessary.

Let us put to rest the ridiculous situation that has been perpetrated by the Government, aided and abetted by the Democrats who sought to pander to this group; let us put this matter where it belongs-right out of the road-and let us look after the Vietnam veterans, as they should be.


Senator Chipp —Like removing the onus of proof.


Senator COLLARD —Unfortunately, the Democrats seem to think that there was a gravy train somewhere and that by handing out money with largesse it was going to solve all the problems of the Vietnam veterans. That is not the answer. Even if there had been a gravy train, we now know that it would not have solved their problems. The community would have said: `Well, there you are, they have got their compensation and we do not want any more to do with it'. That is not the way to treat the situation. There is a problem. The avenues are there. Let us now deal with that problem with compassion and with the sympathy that they deserve.