Radio interview, MIX 104.9 Darwin

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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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30 August 2023

SUBJECTS: US Marine Corps Osprey incident; PFAS consultation forum in Darwin & Katherine; Voice to Parliament.  

KATIE WOOLF, HOST: Now, joining me on the line is the Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite. Good morning to you, Minister.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning, Katie. Thanks for having me on again.

WOOLF: Yeah, thanks so much for your time. Now, what is the latest from your understanding with this tragic situation that unfolded on the weekend?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, well, firstly, Katie, our thoughts are with the families of the three deceased Marines. Such a terrible tragedy. Unfortunately, there was an accident involving a V-22 Osprey on Melville Island at about 9:40 a.m. on Sunday morning. There were 23 passengers on board and obviously there's still a number that are in a critical condition in the hospital and our thoughts and prayers are with those people. Hopefully they'll recover. There's a great bond of mateship that exists between the Australian Defence Force and the Marine rotational force that casts through the top end every dry season and that bond goes way back to the Second World War. So, our colleagues in the US Marines and the US Air Force are hurting at the moment and we're hurting with them. And that's why our thoughts are with those that have passed and their families and, of course, those that are recovering in hospital.

WOOLF: Now, as I understand it, you are also going to be meeting with the US Marine Commander today, is that correct?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, I'm heading this morning to meet with Colonel Brendan Sullivan to pass on, on behalf of the Australian government and people of Australia, our sincerest condolences and our thoughts. But to be there in solidarity with them, to say that the Australian community, particularly the community of Darwin and the top end, stand side by side with our US counterparts at this difficult time and we'll work together to get them through this difficult period.

WOOLF: What support is the Australian Government going to be providing or how are you going to be working with the US from this point?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, when the Marine rotational forces come through here, they're based obviously in Darwin predominantly, and they are able to access a number of the services that are provided to the Australian Defence Forces. Obviously, they bring their own service providers as well, but in this case, if they need access to counselling services and other trauma support services, they're certainly available. And as well, of course, the wonderful expertise and skill and competence that's provided by the medical staff at Darwin Hospital as well, to help through this difficult situation. So, we'll work as closely as we possibly can with our US counterparts to get them through this difficult period.

WOOLF: Yeah. And the response by all of our first responders here in the Northern Territory, following on from that terrible crash, has been quite phenomenal. The way that the likes of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre Care Flight, our Police, I know that if I try and name everybody, I'm going to miss someone, but it has been an incredible response. And the other point as well, I guess to Assistant Minister is, like you were saying, those Marines are really part of the Northern Territory community. When they do come for their rotation in the territory, they're out volunteering at events. They are well and truly part of our community.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, I agree, Katie. I think that we need to pay tribute to the first responders from the area that did an excellent job and their skill and competence really showed through in the manner in which they've dealt with this difficult situation. And I think it's because of their great work that we're fortunate that there weren't more casualties. You're right that the Marines are an important part of the fabric of the Darwin community and they do participate in community activities. I know that they're beloved, that they contribute to the local economy and the local community, and that's why I think we're all feeling the pain that the US Marines are feeling at the moment.

WOOLF: We most certainly are. Now, Assistant Minister, I will move along because I know this. A public forum has been held in Katherine overnight, giving locals the chance to raise concerns about toxic firefighting foam around the RAAF Base there at Tindal. What prompted that PFAS meeting that was held overnight?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I did one in Tindal in Katherine last night and the night before I was in Darwin in respect of RAAF Base Darwin. So, we do these periodically around the country to update communities that have been affected by PFAS contamination. There are about 28 defence bases across the country that have higher levels of PFAS contamination and Defence is working to reduce that. And we do these community forums to update the community about the work that we're undertaking and ensuring that if anyone in the community has concerns, we can work with them to alleviate those concerns as quickly as possible.

WOOLF: Have many people come along to those two sessions?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, in Darwin, we had about probably about 50 people come through over the two sessions. And in Katherine last night, we had about 30 people show up. What we've been doing is basically updating the community on the remediation work that's taking place. So, in both Darwin and in Katherine, the main sites where PFAS is detected are around the areas where they used firefighting foams in the past. So, it's typically at the fire station or fire training grounds on both of those bases. And there's a process called stabilisation where the land is excavated, activated carbon is added to the soil and then the land is remediated. That's very effective at capturing PFAS when it rains and ensuring that it doesn't spread beyond those highly contaminated areas. So, we're updating them about that. Also in Katherine, there's four water treatment plants that have been installed to treat the water that's coming from the ground to make sure that it's safe into the future. So, we're updating them about that and answering any questions that the community have about that process.

WOOLF: And Assistant Minister, I mean, are residents still concerned? Do they feel as though that goes far enough?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, look, residents are concerned and that's understandable and that's why I've apologised to local residents, because this has caused some inconvenience to their lives. The health authorities and the EPA put some restrictions on the amount of produce that can be consumed, that's produced on areas where there's PFAS contamination, livestock that can be consumed. So, it's an inconvenience to people and that's naturally a concern. But Defence has been very proactive. They're trying to get ahead of the issue and work with local communities to reduce the inconvenience and the incidents on local communities and residents and try and work as best they can with them to alleviate this problem as quickly as possible.

WOOLF: Are they still raising concerns about health as well, or is it more so about the points that you've made there?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, people are naturally concerned about the health consequences. In 2019, the Commonwealth Department of Health commissioned a study from the Australian National University to look at whether or not there was a causal link between high levels of PFAS in the blood and certain diseases or ailments. They found that high levels of PFAS in the blood can cause high cholesterol, but beyond that, there was no causal link with any other particular diseases or ailments. Look, this is an area that's evolving. We're constantly updating research and evidence and looking to find out if there are links, and certainly if there is, then government will act. But at the moment, there's no evidence to indicate any causal link beyond that issue of cholesterol.

WOOLF: Now, Assistant Minister, I know you are pressed for time, so just before I let you go, we know the Prime Minister is expected to announce the date today for the referendum for the Indigenous voice to Parliament. We're all thinking it's going to be October 14. What time is he making this announcement? Is that going to be the date?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, it'll be made in about an hour's time. And I'm certainly not going to steal the Prime Minister’s Thunder, Katie. But I did meet a couple of Indigenous gentlemen yesterday in Katherine at the Forum, and they were telling me they were voting yes because they believe it'll make a real difference to the lives of the communities that they live in. I think, you know, it's fair to say that the current system is not working. Aboriginal Australians have a number of health issues, educational issues. We know that they're one of the most incarcerated groups of people in the world. The current system is not working. We need to try something new. It's been a request that's been made from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, and we think it's worth respecting that request and trying to institute a voice in the Constitution so that we can get better results in the longer run.

WOOLF: Well, Assistant Minister for Defence, Matt Thistlethwaite. I've got my tongue tied there. Thistlethwaite, thank you, as always, for your time today.



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