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Speech: Inquiry into PFAS remediation in and around Defence bases: second progress report

I rise to take note of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report Inquiry into PFAS remediation in and around Defence bases: second progress report, which evaluates the government response to the initial inquiry that we had a couple of years ago. The PFAS subcommittee, of which I am a member, was re-established after the federal election last year, when the 46th Parliament resumed. It was re-established precisely with the purpose of scrutinising progress on the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into PFAS and the government's response to it. I have always said that I will continue to work with the community and in parliament to keep this issue front and centre until the government prioritises the needs of the affected communities. This committee is part and parcel of the work that I am committed to.

We all know that the nationwide damage wrought by the toxic PFAS chemicals has been extensive, and people have suffered for too long. Despite this, people had to wait 15 months for the government response to the committee's original report. The government dragged its heels, even after the Senate ordered them to produce the response. After years of stress, they had to wait for months and months. They were anxious, they were frustrated and they were angry, and rightly so. The government's obfuscation and delay showed real contempt for the community. Finally, when the response did come, it was lukewarm, non-committal and, in some respects, completely disrespectful.

As the community group Coalition Against PFAS stated in their submission to this inquiry:

The committee made nine recommendations and called for immediate action.

They are broadly sensible recommendations which avoid piecemeal or half-hearted approaches.

Those Inquiry recommendations have not simply been ignored.

The communities who fought for them have been.

It is these communities that I am fighting for as well. They must get justice. Once again, I want to thank and acknowledge community members and community groups across the country who have been organising on PFAS issues. They include the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group, the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group, communities against PFAS and many brave individuals and families. They are exhausted. Frankly, the onus should never have been on the victims to fight for justice when it's their lives that have been up-ended. It's the polluter and in this case the federal government that must take responsibility for the contamination and its consequences.

It must have been a relief for some communities to finally reach a settlement with the government over PFAS contamination. The $212.5 million settlement points to the serious loss experienced by affected communities and will go some way to alleviating the damage; however, there are many who have been affected by PFAS contamination who the government has left in the cold. In light of this settlement, it's extremely disappointing that in its long awaited inquiry response the government refused to commit to even considering compensation for all affected property holders, including through possible buybacks.

Polluter pays is a basic principle of environmental law and justice. While the government says it supports resolution of legal claims by agreement, not litigation, where appropriate, we are still waiting to see if they actually mean that. In evaluating the government's response, communities keep telling us that they are concerned about the lack of commitment from the government to providing compensation to property owners for losses resulting from contamination. This is unacceptable. Government must take responsibility for their actions. This should not have to play out in the courts but should be driven and co-ordinated by the government acting in good faith with communities.

The committee in its second progress report, which has just been tabled, has again recommended that the government prioritise assisting property owners and businesses in affected areas through compensation for financial losses associated with contamination emanating from defence bases, including the possibility of buybacks. The matter of buybacks is really important. The reality is that the effects of PFAS contamination are not fully known yet and we know that some properties will be significantly affected. There are no options but for compensation to include buyback. The government is responsible for the pollution, and I strongly encourage the Commonwealth government to urgently develop a buyback program for properties where contamination is significant.

Communities are still concerned about the lack of consistency and a piecemeal approach to PFAS management. They have ongoing worries regarding contamination on non-Commonwealth sites as well. There is also ongoing concern about site investigations and the timeliness, effectiveness and responsiveness of PFAS management area plans, which are the responsibility of Defence. As the committee noted, for people residing near defence bases, the protracted process of investigation and site assessment and the disjuncture between Commonwealth and state and territory responsibilities leaves people like those near Richmond RAAF base and Williamtown, which is in my home state of New South Wales, living in a PFAS half-life of restrictions without the benefits of a co-ordinated remediation plan or support services within PFAS management area plans.

It is not acceptable for Defence to say that they will continue to use PFAS-containing foams until certified alternatives to existing firefighting foams become available. As I understand it, alternatives are already available and being used right here, right now in Australia. In their submission to the inquiry, the United Firefighters Union of Australia noted that the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade began trialling fluorine-free foams in various firefighting situations in 2011 and by 2014 all MFB firefighting appliances were converted for carriage of only fluorine-free B-class foams in their foam tanks. This should be happening across Australia without any delay. These are people's lives and livelihoods that we're talking about and putting at risk. The risk can and should immediately be eliminated.

The committee recommends that the government expedite the work to ban the use of, contain and ultimately safely destroy long-chain PFAS based firefighting foams, including those containing PFOS, PFOA and PFH excess, with the objective urgently ratifying the listing of PFOS and expediting the process for PFOA and PFH excess in the event that they are listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Other countries did this years ago. There is no reason for this government to keep delaying this ratification into the never-never.

Overall, the government still needs to do a lot more. If the government cares about the community, if they care about our environment, they should urgently accept and act on all recommendations of the report in full. Communities have waited long enough. They have suffered long enough. It is time to take concrete action to support and help them. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

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