Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

COMMITTEES - Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade - Report

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (19:40): I want to make a few comments on this report this evening. I know people will want to talk on this into the future because of the importance of this particular issue, but I want to pick up from where Senator Faruqi has left off. It's absolutely time. Since I have been in this place, there have been a number of inquiries into the issues around PFAS, and we have become very familiar with the people who've come forward to give evidence on the issue. In fact, in the recent series of inquiries we talked to people who had given evidence about the impact of this particular issue on themselves, their businesses and their community three or four times. In terms of action, I think that there is almost a fatigue in the community-they expect responses from their government and have been given indications that responses will be coming, but consistently the action has been incomplete and inconsistent. And sometimes they feel as though their voices have not been heard.

I'm hopeful that this particular series of reports will generate action. It will not solve the problem. One of the horrors of this PFAS contamination is that there does not seem to be the knowledge in our country or internationally on how you solve the problem. For me, one of the most confronting elements of evidence was in Oakey, which is very close to my home town on the Darling Downs. They put maps in front of the people whose properties were being discussed as well as representatives from the Darling Downs and Defence, and the maps clearly showed that the spread of contamination in the water around that area was continuing to happen. There was indication that there has been considerable expenditure of funds and that there have been activities involving three levels of government, because so often in this situation action requires coordination, cooperation and transparency between three levels of government. In the case of Oakey, the local regional council-the Toowoomba Regional Council-the state government and different elements of the federal government have been aware of the issue. There have been various public meetings across the region. There has been discussion, but the process continues. For me, the confronting element is that no-one has come up with concrete proven evidence about what the impact is and how we stop it. Certainly, that was what people were saying to us. They expressed to us their pain. They expressed to us their frustration and their anger.

They also don't have clear life plans. There were people in each of the locations-and I will concentrate on Oakey because we have representatives from New South Wales and the Northern Territory who'll talk about the other sites covered by the inquiry-but what we found was that every single case was different. There is not a one-size-fits-all in this argument, except for the fact that they are all in pain. In terms of the response, there are some people who desperately need to flee because of the fear that has been created around what the possible impacts might be and because, as I said, of the evidence of continued water contamination. People wish to flee, and they wish to flee now. That's why previous senators raised issues around land values and the opportunities to get an effective sale for the properties where people had hoped to spend their retirement years, where they had hoped to build their families in a new area. That security and that hope has been thwarted by the information they received about these chemicals. But other people in exactly the same area with exactly the same information in front of them do not want to leave their homes. You cannot just say that everybody should be given a package that allows them to leave the areas of contamination or possible future contamination. That was not how everybody felt. There were some people who actually expressed to us at the committee hearings that they have been living in the region for four generations. Even knowing that their health could be impacted, even knowing that there is a lack of certainty about what the impact could be on themselves and their family, some people felt that this was their home, and they wanted to stay. So we don't have a single voice speaking from the communities, but what permeates the argument is fear of the unknown and fear of the impact on themselves, their families and their communities. And there has not been a clear answer from their governments-and I say 'governments' because it goes back a number of years.

I know that there are differing views in the scientific community, but I didn't hear one comment at any time in the evidence saying that this was a good thing. Not one person said that they wanted to be surrounded by these chemicals. Not one person said that they felt this was going to be a good thing. This evidence came from the department as well as from people in the various community groups.

I understand the complexity. I understand that there have been efforts made in the past to have community discussion. But what I felt very clearly was that there was limited trust in the communication. For the people in the affected communities that we met with, face to face, around Australia who had identified that these chemicals were in their homes or home region, there was a lack of trust. For us on the committee that was the No. 1 issue. There needs to be some process put in place to rebuild that trust to ensure that there is an understanding that the full truth, as people know it, will be shared, that the various impacts will be identified and that their government will be able to develop some response to the concerns.

As Senator Faruqi mentioned, there are a number of strong recommendations coming out of this committee inquiry. We often do have strong recommendations come out of committee inquiries in this place. But now I think there has to be a genuine cross-party parliamentary commitment that there will be action taken, that this will not just be passed on to another series of committees down the track and that this time people's voices will be heard. That is still possible. I really believe it is still possible, but there has got to be clearer focus and a better communications strategy developed and put in place immediately.

Certainly we as a committee believe that the idea of having a coordinator-general who would be a single point of response, who would coordinate across departments, who would coordinate across different levels of government and who would be a point on which communities could rely is a good one. Not everybody will hear the answers that they want to hear, because, as I said, there are different concerns and different responses required, but there would be a single point that would be able to have authority to listen and to respond. From our observations through the public hearings and also the written evidence, that is not in place now. There have certainly been attempts, and I do acknowledge that people, particularly in the Department of Defence and also within the environment department, have made efforts, but we need more.

Certainly the evidence from a number of sources is that the international responses need to be coordinated as well. Seemingly, Australia is as well placed as anywhere in the world in this area of identifying the issues and seeking some response. I have expectation that there is scientific knowledge that can be gathered together to look at what we do next, but this is not getting better. As I said, those maps continue to haunt me. It is not getting better. We need to find a way that we can identify what we can put in place to allay the concerns and the fears and to ensure that the communities are not feeling abandoned. I'm not sure how many inquiries there have been on this issue, but there is still a sense of abandonment in the community about the response that they believe that they should have from their government.

I want to acknowledge the commitment, courage and resilience of the people who came to us and gave their evidence. We as a committee feel that their voices were listened to, but we need to ensure now that there is genuine response, there is coordination of response and there is that so-valuable element of ensuring that there is a sense of trust between those who have been impacted on and those who, for whatever reason-and no-one claims that there's been criminal intent-have put chemicals in place which are impacting on Australians' lives. Along with Senator Faruqi, I say it's time to actually put an action plan in place. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.