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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8627

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (15:39): I am almost lost for words! I rise to take note of all answers to questions from Labor senators but I want to focus my remarks on the answers provided by Minister Payne in response to my questions about the Williamtown RAAF base and the pollution issue facing residents there. Minister Payne, in a rather shocking shutdown of her colleague in the other place the member for Paterson, said that the metaphors he used about 'a leaky boat' were not metaphors that she would use. I have bad news for the minister: the member for Paterson appears to be a master of the metaphor. The article in the Newcastle Herald from which the first metaphor was drawn is worth a look. It includes this gem:

If you were a petrol station leaking oils and pollutants from your site, the EPA would be all over you like a … kid in a candy shop.

That, of course, speaks to the lack of action on this issue. He went on to say—and here we go with another metaphor:

The state government and federal government need to work better in their arrangements so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

He is a master of the metaphor, and it would be funny if it were not actually such a serious issue. Since 4 September this year, residents around Williamtown RAAF base have been told to avoid drinking bore water. They have been told not to eat fish from that place and not to eat the eggs produced by the chickens in their backyards. That is a pretty frightening prospect for residents. I think everyone in this place understands that, when something like this happens, we need to approach it seriously and methodically. It is not something that ought to be the subject of scare campaigns and we ought not to make residents unnecessarily fearful. But it is the case that residents in this local area up in the Hunter are demanding clear answers from the Department of Defence, from the minister and from the New South Wales EPA.

In the last week we have seen news reports suggesting that there is a disturbing lack of clarity for residents about the proposed pathway to deal with what is emerging as a very serious problem in this area. The state member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, has said that there is an ongoing disconnect between state agencies and Defence and a disconnect between Defence and the community. The community does not know what is happening. They are waiting for more information. They feel that information is being withheld from them—and, on all the evidence, it seems that it is. They are desperate to know whether they are safe in their own situation. They also desperate to know what will become of their livelihoods. Since September the state government has suspended oyster harvesting and fishing. On 27 October the state government announced there would be an additional closure of at least another eight months. There are families in that region who are absolutely dependent on fishing and oyster harvesting for their weekly incomes.

Finally, after a very long wait, a package has been announced to support people in that area. A local fisherman, Jason Hewitt, has been quoted as saying that a lot of people will go under by the end of the eight-month ban if this is all they can offer. We are talking about a regional community faced with a most serious pollution question that has existential consequences for them. Unfortunately, we are not seeing a coordinated response between the minister, her departmental staff at estimates hearings and the minister's New South Wales state government counterparts.

Fortunately, residents in this area can rely on the Labor MPs who are constantly raising these issues. My friend in the other place the member for Newcastle has made representations on behalf of local residents. She has sought briefings from the minister. She has convened community meetings in the Williamtown area. She has participated in the elected representatives reference group. She is working with colleagues in this place to ask the right questions to get the information for local residents so that they can have the information that they need to make plans for their families' financial security and health.

Question agreed to.