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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4286

Senator FORSHAW (11:20 AM) —I present the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Sealing a just outcome: Report from the inquiry into RAAF F-111 deseal/reseal workers and their families, and move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I appreciate the pressure on the Senate, but I do wish to read this speech, in light of the extreme importance of this report.

The sight of an F111 flying overhead with afterburners blazing has provided excitement for a generation of Australians and the assurance that the highest priority of defending our nation is 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. Personal protection was not always afforded to those engaged in aircraft maintenance. Following its acquisition in 1973, one of the enduring legacies of the aircraft was its leaking fuel tanks. From that moment on, many thousands of Royal Australian Air Force personnel based at Amberley in Queensland were required to enter the cramped confines of these fuel tanks to perform repairs on the leaks.

The repairs were conducted as part of two programs: the major overhaul, known as the formal deseal/reseal programs, and the routine flight maintenance carried out by the maintenance squadrons. Staff in these squadrons—1, 6 and 482—did not conduct complete deseal/reseal procedures but they did perform ad hoc maintenance, colloquially known as ‘pick and patch’. Many other staff did not enter fuel tanks but worked in a support capacity.

This committee has taken evidence that this process could last for hours at a time, while workers used minimal protective equipment and worked in very poorly ventilated areas. Workers were also exposed to a cocktail of chemicals in the process. Due to serious concerns about workers’ health, work on F111 fuel tank maintenance was suspended and a military board of inquiry commenced. The inquiry highlighted a culture where the operation of the aircraft was put ahead of the safety of those who maintained it. 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 available to me this morning it is not possible to even summarise the key points in this report, much less the thousands of pages of submissions, exhibits and transcript received by the committee. 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 F111 fuel tank repairs.

In 2005 the then government announced several compensation schemes. The first was a health scheme aimed at assisting those whose health had been affected. The second was an ex gratia lump sum payment aimed at recognising those workers who had spent many hours inside the cramped fuel tanks of F111s. Both of these initiatives were announced at the same time and in the same press release, leading many to believe that the lump sum payment was linked to health outcomes. This clearly was not the intention. Caveats inserted by the then government also imposed arbitrary cut-off dates for health assistance and ex gratia payment claims. Later, the then government also limited health scheme eligibility, restricting it solely to those who worked in the four formal programs.

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, whilst denying the same benefits to workers whose health had suffered. This simply aggravated the anger. In truth, there was no link between health problems and access to the scheme. The painfully slow and at times indifferent handling of their concerns also produced despair. During one of the public hearings the committee chairman, my colleague the Hon. Arch Bevis, the member for Brisbane, commented that the scheme ‘was born of fuzzy logic, shrouded in misleading spin and then administered in confusion’. Now, at the conclusion of this process, we have confirmed that view.

The committee’s recommendations ensure that access to the ex gratia scheme is based on the work undertaken, not the unit in which it was done, the year in which an application was made or the year in which a former worker died. Those former F111 personnel involved in civil legal action 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 on progress in finalising these matters in the hope that these 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.

During the course of our investigations, important system-wide problems were identified. They require urgent action. 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 Defence has only one person engaged full time on this vital task. How can that be, when we hear so often that the men and women of our defence forces are our greatest assets? That has to change—and soon. If it does not, we will tragically see repeats of the F111 mistakes.

The committee’s report reviews research on the possible health impacts of the fuel tank work and recommends further research on the health implications of working with aviation fuels. This too has implications beyond the F111 community and even Defence.

I want to particularly commend the Chair of the Defence Subcommittee, the Hon. Arch Bevis, for his leadership, analysis and energy throughout the conduct of this very difficult inquiry. I wish to support the chairman’s thanks to staff of the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for their assistance—especially the senior RAAF personnel, whose participation and support were invaluable. I would also like to thank all members of the Defence Subcommittee, who participated in this inquiry in a bipartisan manner—especially noting Mr Stuart Robert MP, the member for Fadden, who was present at all of the hearings.

Thanks are also due to the staff of the secretariat of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which I have the privilege to chair—especially the committee secretary, Dr Margot Kerley. I also thank Colonel Paul Nothard and Wing Commander David Ashworth for their contribution. Special thanks are due to the inquiry secretary, Mr Muz Ali.

But most importantly we owe particular thanks to the F111 fuel tank workers and their families. Our overriding concern in this inquiry has been to ensure that the health care and support needs of those adversely affected by their service on F111s are met. I believe the recommendations do much to achieve that. This report is thorough, it is detailed and it is considered. I urge all senators and others to read it. It should be read widely. I commend the report to the Senate and the government. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.