Press Conference, Newcastle Airport, Williamstown

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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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20 September 2023

SUBJECTS: Independent Review of land uses around key Defence bases impacted by PFAS contamination.

Meryl Swanson, Member for Paterson: Good morning. We're here in the Lightning Room at Newcastle Airport. And I'm absolutely delighted to welcome Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite and our new Independent Reviewer and Matt will talk to you more about Mr Varghese, but I'm certainly delighted to have Matt and Jim Varghese here today. This is a landmark day, as far as I'm concerned for the people of Williamtown and surrounding areas and the people of Paterson more broadly, because this PFAS issue, which on the fourth of September this year, had its eighth anniversary and I use that term, very cautiously. It's a dreadful anniversary to celebrate, and certainly not celebrate, but commemorate a community that woke up to find itself in contaminated land and with contaminated bodies. And you know, we will never forget that fateful day on the fourth of September when we opened our newspaper to see a skull and crossbones, people were told not to drink their water, not to eat their eggs. Fishing was banned on the Hunter River. It was, it was a dark day in our region and many people whether they were involved directly and impacted directly or whether they just had friends or whether they just had empathy for those people and we reached out right across our region, it was felt, and there was panic and concern. And rather sadly the previous government didn't act as swiftly as many of us would have liked them to. And, you know, it's been really a series of events that, you know, I wish hadn't happened to where they had. I know my community has been dragged through many inquiries. I know that they are tired and they just want someone to stick up for them and do something. And that's what the Albanese Government is doing. We are taking action. We know this is serious. We are working with our community. We know that we want to see what can be done with land around bases. And I just again want to thank the community of Williamtown, Salt Ash and the surrounds for your bravery, for your patience, for your action. And I just want to say that you now have a Federal Government that is here. Matt, the first thing he did when he came was apologise. And the next thing he did was appoint a community reference group to continue to work with us on this and we are on this journey not only with the residents but with local government, with industry representatives and with the Defence Force and I do want to single out Defence and say that it is, certainly, this is not the problem of people who are wearing the uniform today. This is a legacy issue. And I was just want to thank them for their service. And I know that they come to work every day in difficult circumstances and work hard to defend our nation and we are all incredibly grateful for that, but right now I would just like to introduce Matt Thistlethwaite. Thanks Matt.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks Meryl, morning everyone. In the lead up to the 2022 Federal election, the Labor Party committed to conducting an independent review of land use around Defence bases that have been contaminated by PFAS. Today, the Albanese Labor Government delivers on that commitment. I'm very pleased to be here in Williamtown to announce that the Albanese Government has appointed Mr Jim Varghese to conduct an Independent Review of land use around PFAS contaminated Defence bases across the country. Jim will look and advise the government about how we can potentially repurpose land to provide equitable and efficient solutions to landholders and communities that have been affected by PFAS contamination. Jim comes with a wealth of experience for this role. He's had 35 years working with the public sector in the Queensland and Victorian governments, 15 years in the private sector. He's the chair of the Leadership Company in Queensland, the chair of Torrens University, and he's a person who's conducted reviews for government, but has been able to develop practical solutions to some complex problems and we have every confidence that Jim will be able to tackle this difficult issue of PFAS contamination throughout the country. The review will focus predominantly on three bases, Williamtown, Oakey Aviation Base in Queensland and Tindal Air Base in Katherine in the Northern Territory. Those three bases have been chosen because they have the most severe contamination of the 28 bases that are contaminated throughout the country. They're also representative of the issues that local communities are facing in dealing with PFAS contamination. Having said that, any member of the Australian community that lives around any Defence base or indeed has an interest in this issue is able to make a submission to this inquiry. It is not restricted to communities around the three bases that are the focus of this inquiry. Jim's work will be conducted over a period of six months and then he will hand a report to the government and we will look at that report and work with communities to hopefully find solutions to this complex problem. I want to congratulate and to thank Meryl Swanson for her dogged determination to make sure that her community is listened to and they get relief from this difficult issue. This is my fourth visit to Williamtown and as soon as I was appointed to this role, Meryl Swanson insisted that I come up here to hear the concerns of the community to work with the local community on getting solutions. And I pay credit to Meryl for her hard work in ensuring that this review came about and the work that she undertook in putting together the policy that we took to the last election. So the review will be conducted from this point forward. There's a website that's been established on the Defence website where people can go and make submissions on. Now I ask Jim to make a few comments and then we'll open it up to some questions. Thank you.

Jim Varghese AM: Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Meryl. It is a privilege to conduct this Independent Review with an opportunity to make a difference. And I am looking forward to listening to all the key parties from the community, First Nations’ communities, to industry, at all levels of government. We have a good opportunity here. There's a lot of information, a lot of data, which I'll go through. And I'm very confident at the end of this review if you take a bigger picture and promote collaboration across all levels of government, community, and industry, we could come up with good ideas and perspectives. So I'm looking forward to listening to the community representatives very shortly. And I am very empathic with what they've been through. And I congratulate Meryl who made her submission. You could feel the pressures that they have been under and also feel the need for better connectivity. I want to look forwards, not backwards. So I'm looking forward to this first phase of this review, which is listening and taking it a step forward. And basically wanting to get three pictures of where things are. Where are we now, where do we want to be? What actions do we need to take? What are the key relationships we need to make it happen? And then very importantly, how do we go about it? How do we listen to the feedback, positive and negative, and make sure we have the capability to deliver. So that would be my summary of where we're at. And I'm really looking forward to where we’re headed and presenting to the Minister in February, but also looking to get a green paper out before the towards the end of the year. Thank you.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks Jim. Do you have any questions?

JOURNALIST: Will compensation and property buybacks be closely considered as part of the review?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look, I can't pre-empt the findings. That's why we are having an Independent Review. And Jim has the expertise and the experience of working with governments at all levels on complex problems and getting solutions. So at the moment, everything's on the table and he'll work with local communities and inquire into this complex issue and then advise the government about what the best approach is to provide that equitable and efficient relief for landholders and communities throughout the country.

JOURNALIST: The review will obviously look into this but what are some examples of possible solutions we might be looking at?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well it could include rezonings. It could include people looking at community infrastructure, all of these issues on the table and that's why we're conducting this review and while we're getting a person who's had experience in dealing with complex issues, particularly associated with agricultural land throughout the country, and providing solutions for government, we want to make sure that we get the right expertise in looking at this issue, but also that we hear the views of local communities and putting those solutions together

JOURNALIST: Will it solely be the Federal government's responsibility to fund the solutions?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Jim will consult with all three levels of government, with local government, State government and Federal government. About two months ago, I convened a meeting with all three levels of government in Sydney. We had myself there, we had the planning minister from New South Wales, the regional minister from New South Wales, and representatives of Port Stephens Council, sitting down and looking at this issue and how we can try and work together to provide relief for and support for communities, and Jim will continue that process in the consultations that he makes with all three levels of government, with interested stakeholders, with Indigenous communities, and indeed with local landholders as well.

JOURNALIST: The community is fiercely concerned about ongoing contamination. There was a new detection at Salt Ash public school. What is the government doing to stop this?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Defence is continuing the work that it's already undertaking to remediate land that's been contaminated by PFAS, already Defence has spent $681 million across the country on land remediation and water clean-up. In Williamtown, it spent $117 million on a water treatment plant and other measures to try and remove the problem at its source. The issue around Salt Ash public school, obviously, is a matter for the New South Wales State government. Defence is working with government, all three levels, and local communities to try and make sure that we deal with the contamination at its source, which is predominantly on the bases and how we try and stop it spreading to local communities including community infrastructure like schools.

JOURNALIST: Meryl, for you this is obviously a really emotional topic to be talking about. You've been here in the community from day dot with this particular issue. What's the feeling like now the community, is it hopeful that, you know, we're hopefully getting closer to a solution?

Swanson: I think there's a lot of hope. I do think that, I think like a lot of communities, there's obviously a variety of opinions. I'd be lying if I didn't say there's probably people out there who are doubtful and I respect that too. They've been through eight years of, quite frankly, not a lot happening in their eyes for them on their land. I'm not detracting from the fact that Defence have spent a lot of money and they've done a lot of work on the base, and they needed to do that. And that's a good thing. But my answer is that I think there is hope and I think they realised that they now have a government who not only wants to listen, but they do want to work for some towards solutions. And that's, that's the critical part for these people that I am absolutely looking forward to introducing Jim to the community reference members this morning. They're very wise. They've been through a lot, but I would surmise that they still have hope, and they do desperately want to see some action.

JOURNALIST: Mr Varghese, can I ask you a question, is that the correct pronunciation of your surname?

Varghese: It’s Varghese.

JOURNALIST: Obviously, you said you'll be looking at the big picture, but will there be individualised approaches recommended as part of your review or is that something on the table?

Varghese: I certainly won't rule it out. To me, this is the beginning of a very careful listening process. So there's a lot of information as I mentioned before, Senate hearings or a lot of other submissions. I want to listen to it very carefully, and then reflect and see where this is pointing towards whether it's individual or collective as the case may be. And take it on its merits and then sit back reflect and then take an action on it.

JOURNALIST: And you mentioned you'll be listening. You'll be sitting in on the community meeting today as well. Do you have future meetings scheduled yet for Williamtown residents or when do you expect to speak with them?

Varghese: We're currently working through that with our very good professional Secretariat. But actually, when this conference finishes, I'll be conducting what I call a learning circle. And the learning circle is where we authentically communicate with each other, we check in to say, you know, how am I feeling what is it that I'm looking for, and at the end of that dialogue, we check up with how it’s fitting, did it meet your expectations? So when you leave that meeting, we will also try and put on the put on our screen one of the key points they're making, and one particularly kind of try to capture is, what is the situation now, as of now? What is it that you want to see happen? And then see if I can look at that gap and see what sort of recommendation or action can be made to the to the government and the minister.

JOURNALIST: Is it fair to say that the focus on the three areas and the findings from that can be easily replicated in other areas?

Varghese: Yes, I believe it can be replicated, but you've got to remember that this comes from a previous Director General of Primary Industries and also in natural resources dealing with a lot of things like Cyclone Larry, equine influenza and all of that. You've always got to remember that different parts, even in one state, are different. Yet some of the principles may be the same, but Williamtown is quite different from Tindal and it's really different from Oakey, but there's some principles that would be across the board. And we've got to be conscious of not slavishly following a one size fits all, but having a nonetheless a very engaging framework, that that brings in the key relationships, but also the thing the outcomes that we're looking for, and bringing the community forward. I'd like to generate positive thinking rather than negative thinking. Thinking opportunity, rather than looking backwards.

Swanson: Thanks, everyone.



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