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Thursday, 1 May 1980
Page: 2081

Senator GRIMES (Tasmania) - I move:

That the Senate-

(   1 ) expresses concern at the evidence of pathogenic effects following exposure of servicemen in Vietnam to Agent Orange and other defoliants: and

(2)   calls for-

(a)   a review by the Administrative Review Council of all aspects of the administrative advice tendered to the Ministers for Veterans ' Affairs. Defence and Health on this subject;

(b)   a clear and unequivocal assurance from the Government that servicemen thus affected will be fully compensated and that this compensation will include their wives and children: and

(c)   an independent judicial inquiry which shall ascertain-

(i)   the extent and range of disabilities incurred by Vietnam veterans and their dependants: and

(ii)   the effects of the continued use of these defoliants within Australia.

I wish to speak briefly to my motion because since 19 February, when I placed this motion on the Notice Paper, I have spoken in this place twice at moderate length on this subject. I understand that other honourable senators are anxious to speak on this subject, and I have no reason to delay the Senate. The seriousness of the problem to which this motion refers could have been demonstrated nowhere better than during the Anzac Day march held in Sydney last Anzac Day. Ex-servicemen from Vietnam who, like other ex-servicemen consider Anzac Day a very serious if not sacred day and consider the march a very serious occasion, took the opportunity to protest at the lack of government action and government concern about the effect of defoliants used in Vietnam by wearing pieces of orange ribbon on their uniforms together with their decorations. I think this action was unprecedented on the part of ex-servicemen. It demonstrated how seriously they consider the dangers to which they have been exposed from the use of agent orange in Vietnam. It demonstrated how they consider that they have not had a fair go in this country- and ex-servicemen in the United States of America also think this- in pushing their claims to have proper investigation and compensation for having used agent orange and other defoliants in that unfortunate conflict.

In this situation a number of ex-servicemen are suffering uncertainty and, in fact, fear about what has happened to them, what may happen to their offsprings and what may happen to them in the future. Well they might worry. The use of defoliants in Vietnam, particularly the use of agent orange and one of its constituents, 2,4,5-T, as well as its contaminant, dioxin, must raise many concerns in the minds of all of us. Agent orange was used to defoliate forests to make warfare easier, to destroy crops and therefore to deprive the Vietcong of food, as well as to deprive villagers of food so they would be forced to go from the villages in which they were living to South Vietnamese Government-controlled villages. In that way they would come more under the control of the Government in the south.

As I have said before in this place, the use of defoliants was condemned at the time by scientists from the United States National Academy of Sciences and other responsible scientists in the United States. The dangers of these substances had been known since they were first produced in the United States in the 1940s. There had been serious accidents in Italy, Britain, West Germany, in various States of America and in Belgium at factories where these substances were produced. They were developed in the United States as a biological weapon. All in all there is a long and sad history of the use of these substances. In fact there is a very large volume of literature about the dangers of dioxin and dioxin-like substances- their dangers in cases of acute poisoning, their dangers in causing damages to the foetus and their dangers in causing long term illnesses, particularly skin and liver diseases, from chronic exposure. So we have a situation where these ex-servicemen might well be afraid and worried about what has happened. Their fear has not been relieved by the attitude of the Government and the authorities in this country or in the United States to their expressions of concern. In fact, when it was first noted that there may be some long term effects of agent orange and perhaps other defoliants, the first response of the government in this country was that, in fact, agent orange was not used by the Australian armed forces in Vietnam.

Senator Walsh - That is always the first response.

Senator GRIMES - As Senator Walsh says, that is always the first response. It was obviously a wrong response. There is ample evidence from Australian servicemen using defoliants in Vietnam. There is obvious evidence that, in fact, agent orange was used. Certainly there is the admission of the Minister for Defence (Mr Killen) that other defoliants of a similar type, in fact, were used. Quite apart from that, the Americans used defoliants- agent orange in particular- in enormous quantities, far beyond the concentrations and quantities used for agricultural purposes in this and other countries, and in Vietnam. Of course, our servicemen were in Vietnam.

Some evidence produced by a professor of medicine in Vietnam is now coming out of Vietnam. This evidence seems to be confirmed by Swedish medical teams who have been to Vietnam. The evidence shows that there are very serious effects on children born to those who were subjected to spraying by defoliants in Vietnam. It seems that the effects may be very, very tragic in the long term and may carry on through generations if, in fact, this substance affects chromosomes, forms chromosome breaks and damages genes. Unfortunately, the response in this country has not been to look at the evidence. That response is to be found in articles appearing in various newspapers which should know better. The articles come from people such as Mr Santamaria who always claims to be fair-minded and who claims that he takes a fair-minded approach. In fact, questions asked and answers given in this place and in another place have attempted merely to use a political weapon to denigrate the gentleman concerned in Vietnam. They suggest that, in fact, he is indulging in political propaganda and cannot be trusted. As far as 1 know, no attempt has been made by this country or the United States actually to look at the evidence he is producing and to look at the facts.

This motion tries to set up a situation whereby these ex-servicemen can be treated fairly, can be seen to be treated fairly and can be relieved of some of the anxieties which they feel. I think to do this we should ask the Government to have a full review not only of how the defoliants were used in Vietnam, who used them and how they may have been affected by their use but also, in fact, of all aspects of the advice that has been given to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Adermann), the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Health (Mr MacKellar) on this subject. It should consider the advice which produced answers such as the one Mr Killen gave in which he claimed that agent orange was not used by Australian servicemen in Vietnam. He tried to make light of the very real fears and worries of these ex-servicemen, these members of the Vietnam Veterans' Action Association.

It is not good enough that people who served their country in a war, particularly a war as unpleasant as the one in Vietnam, who come forward with very real fears and worries about their future and the future of their children should be subjected to the sorts of flippant answers which Mr Killen in particular produced in another place. It is not fair, it lacks any sense of justice and it certainly shows, to my mind, considerable ingratitude to people who were sent to fight in a war, no matter what one thinks of how we got involved in that war and whether we should have been involved in it.

The Government should give, as the motion states, 'a clear and unequivocal assurance' that servicemen who were affected or who may have been affected- and who therefore should receive the benefit of the doubt, as the Repatriation Act allegedly gives ex-servicemen the benefit of the doubt- will be compensated and will get adequate treatment. While investigations are being made into whether their children or wives have been affected, if necessary the repatriation legislation or the regulations should be altered to allow their wives and children to be treated under the repatriation system in this country. There has been, I believe, so much deliberate confusion, so much evasion of questions, and so much work remains to be done- that work must be added to the investigations which have already been done in the United States and other places- that we believe to allay the fears of and to give the appearance of justice being done to these veterans an independent inquiry should be conducted into the extent and range of disabilities which were incurred by Vietnam veterans and their dependants and the known effects and possible effects of the continued use of these defoliants in Australia. 1 am not one of those people who believe that we should use no herbicides or pesticides. I certainly am not one of those who believes that the use of herbicides and pesticides in the world in the last 30 or 40 years has resulted in only ill to mankind. I am certain that mankind has gained considerable benefit from their use. But we are far more knowledgeable now than we were in the past about the possible dangers, and we are far more knowledgeable about how we can avoid some of these dangers in the future. It would be suitable that such an inquiry, while looking at the problems suffered by Vietnam veterans, may look at the way in which such a problem in the future may be avoided. The question may well be asked: Why should we have a judicial inquiry? The problems which have been faced by the Vietnam veterans have been so compounded by the evasions and the attempts to push their fears under the carpet in the past that I believe only an independent inquiry will satisfy them and give the appearance of justice both to them and to the rest of the community. I believe it is not sufficient to appoint just a government inquiry to look at the statistical evidence which is available, although I do not disagree with that. I believe that that should be part of the evidence to an independent inquiry. I believe that an independent inquiry is essential to make sure that the ex-servicemen realise that they have been treated fairly. The best independent inquiry, I suggest, should be a judicial inquiry whereby a judge can weigh up the evidence from all sons of sources- from the veterans themselves, from scientists working in the area, from the companies that produced the defoliants and herbicides that were involved- with assistance, as judges do in such inquiries, from experts in the area who will advise the judge and assist him in interpreting that evidence. It is for the reason that justice is not only done but also seen to be done that I have moved that a judicial inquiry should be held.

There is one final reason why I believe a judicial inquiry is necessary. When we are dealing with the matter of the various defoliants produced by the companies around the world, we are dealing with very powerful, influential and ruthless businesses and economic influences. When the environmental protection authorities in the United States tried to make inquiries into the dangers of the production of these substances and tried to put safety restrictions on their production, the experience was that these large companies- Du Pont and others- used all their political and financial influence and then used the courts to the extreme, even to the extent of going to the Supreme Court of the United States, the purpose being continuously to delay and to obstruct people who were trying, through the environmental protection agencies, to ensure that their communities, their wives and children in the region of these manufacturing units were safe. Small citizen groups with little funds battled their way through the environmental protection agencies and through the courts and were continually obstructed while they tried to get justice for themselves and sought to render their communities safe. In our system the best way to ensure that an inquiry is fair and, as much as possible, taken away from these influences, is to have a judicial inquiry. That is why I have moved that we have a judicial inquiry into this matter.

The situation is serious. Tonight I have not listed any cases that have been brought to my attention. I am sure other honourable senators will mention similar cases. I have not listed the long suspected side effects of these substances; I have in the past. I have not listed the long series- I think, some 23- very serious accidents which have occurred involving the use of these substances. The evidence of the Vietnam Veterans' Action Association, the evidence which I am sure will be presented here tonight by other honourable senators, and the run-around that these people have been given, reducing them to a state of fear and uncertainty warrant that this Senate should express to the Government its belief that we set up an independent inquiry, that we compensate the ex-servicemen and their families, and that we look at how these substances came to be used and how the Ministers in this Government came to give such misleading answers to questions on this subject in another place.

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