Minister Payne, Assistant Minister McGrath - RAAF Williamtown, NSW, 17 May 2017

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Senator the Hon Marise Payne

Minister for Defence

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  • Henry Budd (Minister Payne‚Äôs office) 0429 531 143
  • Defence Media (02) 6127 1999

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17 May 2017

JAMES MCGRATH:

This afternoon was a very good meeting, listening to the stories of residents who have been impacted upon by the contamination. So it was very good for myself and the Minister of Defence to have a shared meeting with the residents to hear their concerns direct as the Government works to build a plan to address their concerns.

REPORTER:

What is the plan, Senator? Where to from here?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Well, I've got to go back to my desk and look through all the various options and work out how we can address the concerns of the people who have been affected by the contamination. There's no point us designing a plan without hearing directly from affected people.

REPORTER:

Do you think, Senator, this throws a message to the residents here at Williamtown you're dead-set serious about helping them? I mean, it's taken a while to get here on the ground - yourself and the Minister. Does this mean you're listening and taking things on board?

JAMES MCGRATH:

I think the Minister has been here a few times, but the Government is deadly serious about finding a solution for the contamination issue, not just here in Williamtown, but up at Oakey in Queensland.

REPORTER:

What did people say to you today?

JAMES MCGRATH:

It was a very personal meeting in the shed. It was the stories of how each family or person or couple had been impacted upon by the PFAS contamination. So it's probably up to them to tell their own stories and not up to me to paraphrase them.

REPORTER:

The human face, I guess, of this crisis was well and truly evident today - emotions breaking down, boiling over, et cetera. Clearly people are hurting. Are you listening and are you going to help?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Well, that's why I'm here having the meeting in Len's shed - to listen to people, to hear their concerns, to hear their stories. So when we bring forward a solution to the problems that have been outlined people will know that they're being listened to.

REPORTER:

Isn't the solution pretty obvious though, to everyone here, that the solution is to buy them out so they can leave?

JAMES MCGRATH:

There are various solutions and options that we're looking into. It would be wrong for me to start going through the different options that are available, that the Government's currently looking into.

REPORTER:

Why would it be wrong?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Because we're looking into the different options that are available to - that the Government's looking at in terms of the Williamtown and Oakey community.

REPORTER:

How far away is an announcement on something like land acquisitions?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Look, it's something that I'm working on at the moment, that's on my desk. It would be wrong of me to give a date.

REPORTER:

How are we travelling with the litigation against 3M?

JAMES MCGRATH:

In terms of any legal action, I don't think it's appropriate I comment on any legal action at the moment.

REPORTER:

What is your position on the health effects of the chemicals?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Well, the Government's been quite clear in terms of investing serious money into the health concerns that may come out of PFAS. One of the problems we're facing is that with PFAS contamination there's no proof, there's no scientific evidence that can strongly back up the PFAS causes, health impacts upon people. So what the Government is doing is investing serious money into the epidemiological study and also, as recently as the Budget last week, $12.5 million into a nation-wide health-study, because we want to make sure that we can allay people's concerns or find out the other way.

REPORTER:

Would you like having the water from here in your water fountain in your office?

JAMES MCGRATH:

I think the Government's been quite clear in terms of stating how the water has been contaminated, and it's put measures into effect in terms of putting on town water for people in terms of that issue.

REPORTER:

So the US EPA has said that the weight of evidence has concluded that the chemicals were a hazard to human health. Does the Australian Government take issue with the US EPA's position?

JAMES MCGRATH:

No, what the Australian Government is doing is putting money into health studies to make sure that here in Australia we actually know what PFAS does do or doesn't do.

REPORTER:

So we're sort of testing if the US EPA's evidence is correct or not?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Well, we're actually going to become world-leaders in terms of understanding the impact of PFAS contamination.

REPORTER:

You've been liaising, I know, with the big banks, et cetera. We've had meetings in terms of valuations - I think you were involved; we just got some freedom of information documents out last week. Clearly, I guess, the message to the banks is to be mindful amid this crisis as we deal with the fallout?

JAMES MCGRATH:

Is that question to me or Minister Payne?

REPORTER:

Minister Payne.

MARISE PAYNE:

Well, I think the Defence Department and the Commonwealth Government both have been in discussions with the key financial institutions - the Property Institute, the Association of Valuers - in relation to these issues, making sure that they have the facts as we know them, that they are well informed of the work that is being done. We want them to obviously take a sensible approach to these issues.

I'd also say, in relation today, firstly let's thank Len and Pam O'Connell for having us here this afternoon and facilitating the location for the meeting. I also want to acknowledge the Member for Paterson, Meryl Swanson, and my Senate colleague Senator Brian Burston for being part of the discussion today.

This is a legacy issue. We know that. We know that the use of the relevant fire fighting foams occurred some decades ago, not just across the Defence organisation and Defence bases but fire fighting authorities, airports, and a number of other locations, including commercial and industrial sites. So we also know now, we believe that waste sites - waste disposal locations - are potential contaminant sources too. So it is a very complex issue for government at all levels, at local and state and territory and federal level.

So we are working together, it is on the COAG agenda - it was placed on the COAG agenda by the Prime Minister in December of last year. So the jurisdictions across the board are aware of the implications of some of the work that is being done. In terms of the Defence base here at Williamtown, the RAAF base, in terms of the army aviation base at Oakey: they are but two of the locations across Australia that Defence is addressing in terms of environmental investigations, ecological investigations and human health risk assessments.

They are extraordinarily complex processes. They don't happen overnight. And people are understandably frustrated, at times, by the length that they take. I appreciate that very much. The sort of information that we have produced that informs the responses, I think, is very important. The epidemiological study, which the Assistant Minister has referred to is starting to get underway and I understand from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth, who is here with us today - that further consultations with the local community will occur quite soon.

All of those are steps that we are taking to understand - better - the issue that we have. It is threshold almost across the world. There is work being done in the United States, there's work being in Europe, there's work being done here. And all of the parties that are involved in that process are bringing that work together to share it because some of it is so new. And I think it is important that we recognise that.

That doesn't help the families who are dealing with this challenge every day in this community and I absolutely appreciate that. So Senator McGrath, his role, in terms of the taskforce that the Prime Minister established, is to take a whole of government view, whether we're dealing with land that's adjacent to an airport, land that's adjacent to a RAAF base, to take a Whole-of-Government view to determine how best we can support people to make the decisions they want to make in their lives. If I was to make my observation about the most compelling takeout of today's meeting, it is that people who are part of this community, who love this community, some who have lived here for a very long time, want to have - want to be empowered to make decisions about what they do in relation to their own futures on their own properties, amongst their own community for their children and for themselves. That is the message that we will take back today.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:

One more question.

REPORTER:

Really? We haven't asked any questions of the Minister really yet. Minister, we overheard one woman saying this is criminal negligence. Is that your take on this? How do you stand on that?

MARISE PAYNE:

Well I think that when the contaminants were used broadly, internationally, in fire fighting foams, in Scotchgard that you use to protect your lounge suite or your raincoat, in the frying pan non-stick surface that you use every single day - when those sorts of contaminants were used, my understanding is that there was no conception whatsoever of their persistent nature. We still have questions in relation to their ultimate impact in health terms and environmental terms. So that is an issue that will be under, I suspect, study for some time.

In terms of their movement, in a location like this, where groundwater levels are so high, where rainfall is relatively high and the contaminants can move through the water and through the groundwater very, very easily, that movement is not something which was evident at the time of the use of the chemicals. So, I wouldn't agree with that observation, largely in relation to the history. What we are trying to do now though in terms of bringing the conversation to the response, what we're trying to do now though is with the understanding that we have of the issues that people are facing within the community, whether it's in relation to the value of their property, their own health, the future they want for their families, is to take that information back to Government to make sure that we inform them properly and to the Parliament frankly, both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to inform them properly so that we can make decisions that support people to build the future that they want.

REPORTER:

Minister, an update on the Navy's two LHDs - when are they expected to finish their work at Garden Island?

MARISE PAYNE:

Are there any other questions, given that I am in Williamtown and it might be courteous to ask a local journalist ...

REPORTER:

[Interrupts] I am a local journalist ... I did wait for ...

MARISE PAYNE:

Are there any other questions?

REPORTER:

Just one thing, what's the message to I guess, expecting mums, mums that have new bubs that have levels already that are well above standards? What's the message to these people?

MARISE PAYNE:

I am not a health professional and I am not in the business of providing medical advice, nor should I be, quite frankly, but as I said, we had the Deputy Chief Medical Officer here today. The Department of Health has been closely involved in this process for some months now. I suggest that prospective mothers, prospective parents take the medical advice as it is provided to them, consult with their General Practitioners who are in contact through the Primary Health Networks with the Department of Health and to do those things.

That said, there are people here today who have taken that course of action and still come up with issues concerning their young children. It's important to note that all of us, I suspect everybody standing around here, whether you're from Newcastle, from Williamtown, or from beautiful southern Queensland or from Western Sydney like I am - all of us have latent levels of these PFAS contaminants in our blood, one way or the other, whether it's the sort of methods that I spoke about before or others. So my advice is to work with the medical profession.

REPORTER:

So what's the Government doing to prepare for the potential budget fallout over a class action payout for the residents here?

MARISE PAYNE:

I would never comment on court action that's underway.

REPORTER:

What's your position on the potential breach of the EPBC Act by Defence by doing damage to the international wetlands here?

MARISE PAYNE:

I understand the Minister for the Environment, Josh Frydenberg, is examining concerns in relation to the Ramsar Wetlands and that's a matter I'll leave to him.

REPORTER:

Last time you were here you said that you were waiting for the reports before you could talk about legal liability. Now that you've got all those reports back, are you prepared to talk about liability?

MARISE PAYNE:

Those matters are being handled by the Prime Minister's Task Force. The Minister and I have spoken today about what we're doing here today in terms of getting people's feedback in the community. That is the information we will take back to discuss with senior representatives in the Government about the next steps.

REPORTER:

Minister, the two LHDs - can you give us an update on those ships, please?

MARISE PAYNE:

So the Navy has taken a very prudent approach to managing what appeared to be issues with HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra. When they were identified, both ships were brought along side at Garden Island for engineering examination and that's a process which we're working through with our relevant industry partners.

So the ships are still in the operational testing and evaluation phase - they haven't commenced (inaudible) at this point. This is the period of time in which, in Defence acquisition and implementation terms, we identify these sorts of issues and we address them. That's not to say that it's not frustrating. It has been an issue that's been under examination for some time. But what I want Navy to do and what I want our industry partners to do, is to make sure that we get the right outcomes in terms of maximising our capacity for this very important capability, and whatever time that takes, is frankly, the time that it will take. I don't intend to ask them to rush it. I don't intend for them to work to an artificial or self-imposed deadline from anyone else, I want them to do the work that's required and I want them to report back to Government when they're able to do so.

REPORTER:

On that, are you confident it will be done before the Talisman Sabre exercise?

MARISE PAYNE:

All I will do, then, is repeat what I just said which is to say I am not going to provide an artificial deadline for that. I want them to do the work that's required, I want them to do the work on the ships which have an interesting structure, so normal engineering things which you might expect to see within the hull of the ship are in pods, below the ship, so that you can maximise the use of the internals of the LHDs. It is a first-off for us. These are the first ships of this type that we have acquired and operated, so whatever time it takes is the time that I want Navy to use and I want them to work with our industry partners to get the best solution.

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