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Thursday, 22 August 1985
Page: 181

Senator JESSOP(3.32) —I just want to make a few remarks on the report of the Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam. I do so having regard to my interest in the report on this subject that was presented by the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment in November 1982. You will recall, Mr Deputy President, that the Senate in October 1981 asked that Committee to go into this question as best it could and report within 12 months. We almost made it. I think the inquiry was carried out within that period but the report was in fact presented in November 1982. During that inquiry we were able to cross-examine many witnesses and specialists in genetics and epidemiology. We talked to people of the calibre of Dr William McBride, the famous gentleman who had something to do with discovering the effects of thalidomide.

Senator Button —He was famous over a bull, too.

Senator JESSOP —Was he? I do not think that this is a time for humour. I ask the honourable senator not to divert me.

Senator Haines —Is he taking up your time?

Senator JESSOP —Yes. I promised the Minister who just interjected that I would not be very long.

Senator Chipp —Can I have a go then? Why did you vote for the removal of the onus of proof?

Senator JESSOP —Do not start that nonsense again.

Senator Chipp —I hope Hansard recorded that. Do you think that was nonsense? Is that what you said?

Senator JESSOP —I have had a look at the whole Repatriation Act. Do not divert me.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator will address his remarks to the Chair.

Senator JESSOP —Certainly. During that inquiry we discovered that, of the 43,000 to 45,000 Australian servicemen who went to Vietnam, probably about 5,000 could possibly have been exposed to the defoliant to which the report refers. Of course, we had very great difficulty in determining the exact dose of the chemical that these people may or may not have been subjected to because nobody seemed to have any conclusive idea of the meteorological conditions at the time, whether the aircraft that dropped the defoliant were flying directly over the troops or whether they were some kilometres away. Nobody seemed to know how strong the winds were or how far the defoliant could be carried. So we found it very difficult to make any judgment as to how many of those 5,000 were directly exposed to the chemical.

Senator Collard quite properly pointed out that dioxin is a teratogenic chemical. Quite clearly the female must be exposed to that chemical within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in order to give effect to a deformed foetus. So we came to the conclusion, after an expenditure of probably $150,000, that it was highly improbable that 15 years after the event, as Senator Collard quite properly pointed out, war service in Vietnam would have had anything to do with deformities suffered by children of Vietnam veterans.

However, we were worried about a few things. Honourable senators will notice that the Senate report was the first report on this matter. I, together with my Committee members, thought that this was an important matter. Senator Mulvihill was very concerned. Senator MacGibbon and other members of the Committee thought that we needed a little more scientific and epidemiological evidence about other matters. We were concerned about the exposure of Vietnam servicemen to anti-mosquito fogging and the ingestion of anti-malarial drugs, both of which are carcinogenic and could, in the long term, possibly have some effect. I am pleased to hear from Senator Collard that the Royal Commissioner has addressed that and has indicated, from epidemiological evidence, that such is not the case. I am very pleased to hear that.

As a result of our report the Department of Veterans' Affairs, under the instructions of the then Minister, Senator Messner, made some changes to the Act to ensure that Vietnam veterans were treated equally with other servicemen with respect to matters that arose. So, I, like Senator Macklin, believe that this report, which I have not had the opportunity to digest yet-I do not know whether I will be able to, having regard to the fact that it comprises nine volumes; I will certainly pay attention to the important aspects of it-deserves a longer debate. I think it is very important that we do not alarm the public at large about matters relating to the possible mutagenic or teratogenic effects of matters that occurred in Vietnam over 15 years ago. I believe that that would be a bad thing to do. Unfortunately the Australian Democrats caused a little bit of concern-

Senator Haines —Oh!

Senator JESSOP —There is no question about that. The Democrats appealed to people. They promoted emotive disturbance amongst people who were having babies 15 years after Australians served in Vietnam. It is no wonder that feminists are creeping into the Democrats and causing resignations right, left and centre. We are very concerned about the welfare of these people.

Senator Chipp —Why do you pick on women? What do you have against women?

Senator JESSOP —My colleague on my left seeks to distract me again. I choose to ignore him. All I am suggesting is that it is very easy to get carried away on emotive issues which deal with possible mutagenic or teratogenic effects and birth deformities. I think I said in an earlier debate that 75,000 Japanese children whose parents were irradiated by those terrible bombs that horrified us were checked out for birth deformities. The interesting thing was that the epidemiological evidence happened to be that just over 3 per cent of those children displayed either a small or a large abnormality. What is the epidemiological evidence in the community at large? It is about the same.

I think it is very easy for us to get carried away without having the basis of scientific knowledge of the subject. I believe that the report deserves a very thorough debate. I hope the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) will encourage the Government to respond to it as quickly as it can. It will probably take six months; I think the requirement is three months. I can understand that it will take a little while for the Government to do that. I hope that there will be the opportunity for the Senate to debate the matter in a much more expansive way.