Interview with Dan Cox, ABC Newcastle Breakfast

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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11 October 2022

DAN COX, HOST: PFAS, four letters which you wouldn't describe as four little letters, certainly not when they're together. It's something we've been talking about in the Hunter for years now. And if you live in an area that's been affected by those toxic firefighting chemicals, then you might have concerns about the ongoing impact on your health, your land and your property value. Yesterday, two community information sessions were held at Williamtown to update locals, many of whom are part of a class action lawsuit against the Commonwealth. Matt Thistlethwaite is the Assistant Defence Minister. He was at the meetings and met with the community. Good morning, Minister.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Dan. Thanks for having me on the show.

COX: A pleasure. Thanks for joining us. Have you committed to buying back properties affected by PFAS in the Hunter?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, what we've said is, everything's on the table at this stage. I think that we need to try and work with the community on getting solutions and we can't have a one size fits all. Some people don't want to stay in the community, others want land rezonings. Some people want the Commonwealth to consider land buybacks. Everything is on the table at this stage. And what I committed to yesterday was bringing the community together. They're going to establish a consultative committee that will meet with the Department of Defence, myself, the local Member, Meryl Swanson, and we're going to try and bring in state government and local government representatives as well to work on a solution to this lingering problem.

COX: I understand it's not a one size fits all, but for years now, there have been many a local that are saying, my size, my fit is a buyback. When will you make a decision on this? When will residents know about their buyback options?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we need to try and find out what the situation is with the zoning in the area and…

COX: Haven't we known about that for seven years or so now, since the last government put those zonings in place? Residents will tell you they know exactly what's going on and they're a bit nervous that this is just starting again with the next crew, if you like.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, I understand that and that's why I apologised yesterday on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. People have had seven years of uncertainty. We know that the problems come from the Department of Defence. That's where they used the firefighting foams on the base there that's leased out to other areas in the community and has affected people's property. We know that, what we've got to try and do now is work on solutions. But anything that we do at Williamtown will have ramifications for the rest of the country as well, because these firefighting foams have been used extensively throughout Australia, not just at Defence bases, but at airports, at fire stations and other areas throughout the Commonwealth. So anything we do here will have cost implications for the rest of the country and that's what we need to weigh up.

COX: Understood. But that's hard to look at mum and dad in the eye that spends $600,000 on a mortgage and say, look, I know you're worried, but I've got to worry about the implications around the country. What will your government be doing differently compared to the last one? And that you're very critical of that, they were too slow, there were too many investigations. How will the Labor government be different?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, firstly, I'm going to try and bring together the state government and the local government. It's amazing that the three levels of government haven't actually sat down together and tried to work out a solution to this. A lot of people yesterday were saying, we can't understand why they're still in the so-called red zone and why the state government still has those restrictions on their properties, when, in their view, a lot of the contamination has improved. And they are questions that I think are valid. And we need to try and work through those to see if some of those zonings can be lifted so people can realise the true value of their properties into the future. That's some of the alternatives that I think we need to work through.

COX: So locals have lived with this for seven years now. What's your time frame? What's good enough for you as a Labor government to make a decision on buybacks and compensation?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I can't give you a time frame, unfortunately, because it's quite a complicated issue. We don't know the extent of the clean-up and how well that's been going that's being assessed at the moment. Some people yesterday were calling for further blood testing to see what changes have occurred in terms of the health effects in the area. I think that's a valid concern. I'm going to work with the Department of Health to try and bring that off and then we need to try and work on those issues around zonings and considering buybacks. All of these issues are on the table. It's going to take a bit of time to work through…

COX: Seven years? Could we be having this conversation again, that residents are cranky, that in seven years the Labor government has done nothing?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I hope not. I'm certainly trying to work on a much quicker time frame than that. I know people are frustrated and that's why I went up to Williamtown yesterday. I'm going to try and have another meeting there before the end of the year with this new consultative committee and bring together those various representatives from the different levels of government to try and work on a solution for the community.

COX: We know the remediation, the clean-up work, is ongoing. How do we not know how it's going, though, yet? How do you not have reports in front of you that say, we're 20% done or it's working and mitigations in place?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, unfortunately, the weather is a big factor. We've had some pretty wet weather in recent times and of course, we know that we've had some flooding in the area and that can make the problem worse. It can move the contamination to other areas and that testing will need to be done. There was a report yesterday from the Department of Defence that around the base that improvements are being made and they are removing kilograms of PFAS contamination every day. But when you get further out from the base, it's difficult to assess whether or not progress has been made. And I think that that's what we need to assess in the coming months and try and get a handle on where things are at.

COX: Minister, I know it's complex, I know you're struggling to lock in a time frame, but then at least give us what the next step is. Did you walk away from those meetings telling the residents there will be another community information session in three months from now? What do they know is the next step?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, so the next step is for the consultative committee to be established and I've left that to the community. They're going to put together a committee of eight representatives and…

COX: Do we have not already had one of those?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: There was one that was established a long time ago, but it lapsed and hasn't been meeting again. I want that re-established because I want members of the community to be involved in all the meetings that I'm going to have with the Department of Defence and state and local government representatives. I want them to be there to be able to ask the questions and hear what those representatives have to say. And I think that that's going to be pretty important. So that's the first next step and we'll do that before the end of the year.

COX: Minister, thank you for the update and we will talk before the end of the year, no doubt.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Appreciate your time, Dan. Thanks.


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