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Speech: PFAS-affected communities

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 13 Nov 2019

I rise to take note of the government's continuing failure to front up to the PFAS affected communities that they have abandoned. Nearly a month ago, I told the Senate that every day the government delays responding to this report shows its contempt not only for the Senate but for the thousands of people who have lived with contamination of their land and their water, caused by the government. Here we are again, nearly a year since the Senate report into PFAS contamination was tabled in this place, and there has been no response whatsoever from the government. There is no justification, really, for the delay. Yes, we all understand it's a complex issue, but we deal with complex issues every single day. And saying that you intend to release the report by the end of the year is, frankly, not good enough. There is no commitment, really, to bringing justice and closure to the victims of this contamination.

It's important to appreciate how we have reached this point. When the report was tabled last December, I said that, if the government care about the community, if they care about our environment, they should urgently accept the recommendations of the report. They don't have to wait for months to provide a response. But months they waited. In January, I visited communities in Williamtown, Salt Ash and Bobs Farm areas, where residents are really sick and tired of having to fight the federal government for compensation for the pollution of their land and water by the Department of Defence. They are really exhausted. They, too, were calling on the government to respond with a proper compensation package that, importantly, must include buybacks of properties that have been significantly affected. Still, the government were silent.

In July, this place passed my motion that ordered the government to release a response. This order for the production of documents passed the Senate after it had been more than seven months since the joint standing committee tabled its report. For seven more months affected communities waited anxiously. Still the government ignored the Senate's call and those of worried residents around the country. By September, I said that enough is enough and moved with others in this place to order the government to table their response. Not only did the government fail to respond, but they told this chamber they didn't even have a response to give. They've had the committee recommendations in front of them for almost one year now and they still don't have a response to give us. What a slap in the face of the communities that have waited more than long enough, communities that have suffered for more than long enough, communities that deserve concrete action—not just now; that action should have happened years ago.

Last month in October, I spoke with the Hawkesbury Environment Network about contamination in Richmond and around New South Wales. I also visited the so-called 'red zone' in Williamtown, where PFAS affected residents have been left in limbo by state and federal governments and the Department of Defence, who, it seems, don't give a damn. Linden Drysdale was one of the citizens I met. After our meeting, she told the Port Stephens Examiner:

The big people - the politicians in Canberra - don't listen to us little people … We are the ones who are living this nightmare 24/7 and we are not going to stop fighting, even it means till the death.

We are with the residents of Williamtown, the residents of Richmond and the communities around the country that this government is leaving hung out to dry. Such is the absolute justified frustration of community members that late last month they launched the largest class action Australia has ever seen. Up to 40,000 people who live and work on the land contaminated by PFAS are taking the government to court to demand justice for the harm this contamination has done to property values that now trap them in an incredibly dangerous situation.

Every day that this government slows down the process and every day that they deny compensation to communities who deserve solid action, the lack of action drives affected people further into the ground financially. Not only that, the lack of action has impacted people's mental and physical wellbeing immensely. These communities did nothing wrong. Their land was contaminated by the Department of Defence but the community is expected now to bear the cost of living with PFAS contamination. You have the luxury of sitting here wasting time and obfuscating, but they don't. People are at breaking point. The government needs to take action, and it needs to take action now. It is the height of arrogance for this government to refuse to respond to the community and also a Senate inquiry. Ultimately, the federal government must take responsibility for the PFAS pollution. The community has waited and suffered long enough. It is time for action. Thousands of lives have been changed by the PFAS contamination, pushing communities to breaking point. Government neglect has forced people to wait for too long. The government must immediately release their response to the PFAS report.

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