13 February 2018

I thank you, Senator Burston, for bringing this very important issue to the attention of the chamber this afternoon.

Like many people in the Northern Territory, I find myself continually perplexed at the government's scattered response to PFAS.

As my colleagues know, I have spoken in this chamber many times about PFAS in Katherine in the Northern Territory. The Katherine community has been seriously impacted by chemical contamination of its water supply.

Many of you will recall seeing the Four Corners program last year which told the stories of people in Katherine. People were shocked, worried and anxious. Understandably, the Katherine people are anxious about the widespread nature of the PFAS contamination and the unknown consequences of ingesting or recreationally coming into contact with PFAS.

We now all know the primary PFAS exposure pathway for humans is from drinking water. Other exposure routes can include eating foodstuffs produced from impacted land and water systems like fish, poultry, meat and vegetables.

Katherine's bores and drinking supply are contaminated with traces of PFAS. Since the contamination was detected, Katherine residents were told not to drink the water. They faced water restrictions, have been told that they had to wait for blood tests and have had new water tanks installed. All of these things they took in their stride. They have been attending information sessions, but there is no clarity around when the announcement of blood tests will take place. This is of serious concern for the people of Katherine. I must let this Senate know, and certainly let the parliament know, that that delay is so unnecessary and is causing a great deal of anxiety. For some context, when it comes to the lack of transparency around the government's response to PFAS in Katherine, the fact that the government can't or won't share information about them is nothing new.

Regular calls for a single point of contact for PFAS on the ground in Katherine have gone unanswered. Since PFAS was found in Katherine, residents have been dealing with numerous government agencies. During estimates, I was referred to Health, Defence and PM&C for answers. That's what I can do in here as the senator for the Northern Territory be told to go to different agencies. But for people on the ground in our communities to be told to go from one bureaucracy to another bureaucracy to another bureaucracy to get the answers that they so desperately need has not been good for the people of Katherine.

In December last year, Katherine Town Council Mayor Fay Miller came to Canberra to meet with ministers regarding the response to PFAS and to look for some answers for the people of Katherine. As the people of Katherine have done, through their mayor in the Katherine town council, I certainly thanked the defence minister, Senator Payne, for responding with bottled water, installing water tanks and placing Defence contact points on the ground in Katherine. Like the people of Katherine though, I still have questions.

Since PFAS was found in the water, the member for Katherine, Sandra Nelson, the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, and I have repeatedly asked that the people of Katherine receive the same response to PFAS that other places around Australia have received. More specifically, we echoed the calls for voluntary blood tests for people living in the affected areas. These calls for blood testing were belittled by the government. Residents were simply told to wait and that any blood test wouldn't really show much. We only have to look at the transcripts in Hansard to see the response to my numerous requests for these blood tests. The calls from residents were also ignored. I know, as do the people of Katherine, that the blood tests offered to othersto other families in other jurisdictionswere offered at the same time as other environmental testing was being undertaken. For anyone who wants to argue that point, I refer you again to the estimates Hansards. You only have to look at our record on the Hansard and the consistent questioning on this issue.

If blood tests will give the people of Katherine some peace of mind and reduce anxiety and confusion, why does the government insist on denying them this process?

Why are they denying the people of Katherine the process of blood testing?

On 3 December I was alerted to a joint announcement from Minister Scullion, Minister Hunt and Minister Payne that the people of Katherine would receive blood tests. We were certainly very pleased, particularly in the lead-up to Christmas and the end of the year, with the hope that this was the beginning of some important positive signals being sent to residents in the region. We were so pleased to hear this announcement and it was received with a great deal of hope. It was what the people of Katherine had asked for, and it was what I and my colleagues in the other House had been lobbying for within this parliament. They were finally going to receive this, and a $5.7 million support package was going to help this happen. The announcement was consistent with the services that are being provided to the communities of Williamtown in New South Wales and Oakey in Queensland. They are available to anyone who lives or works, or who has lived or worked, in the RAAF Base Tindal investigation area.

The local member for Katherine, Sandra Nelson, said, 'After a year of lobbying and advocating, I am so relieved.' That was the immediate thought of so many people in Katherine. We were also told that the government would be commissioning the NT Primary Health Network to facilitate the voluntary blood-testing program with local GPs.

Eight weeks on from that announcement, here I am, still standing in the Senate, still calling on the federal government and still talking about the blood tests that the people of Katherine should have received by now. These are blood tests that people of Katherine should have been lining up for to make sure that they were being tested. It's been eight weeks since that announcement and not one blood drop has been taken. So the people of Katherine are still waiting.

On 2 February, the government's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Hobbs, said in a radio interview that the voluntary blood tests will now not be available until March. How is this possible?

The people of Katherine have had 18 months of anxiety, and just before the end of last year they were given some sense of hope, and still there is delay upon delay. Dr Hobbs also said that a contract had not yet been signed with the primary health network, so there would be no government funded testing until that had happened. No contract signed! A radio interview is how Katherine residents are finding out about the rollout of the blood testsor the absence of the rollout.

The government made a commitment of a $5.7 million support package, and now they are again leaving Katherine residents in the dark about when this will happen. There is no timeline for when these tests will be made available to the Katherine residents.

No-one wants to see medical services overloaded with a demand that they can't meet, and I have heard this is a barrier to opening up the blood tests immediately. But we have to ask the question: what is going to change in March? Will there be an increase in the number of doctors and nurses in Katherine to meet the demand? What will happen with the second and third rounds of blood tests?

Labor has consistently called for a national solution to PFAS contamination. We know that PFAS is a national problem that needs a national solution.

The Turnbull government is certainly failing in this particular area, in terms of information about the timing of the promised blood tests. Its promised solution, announced in May, has yet to materialise. Labor will not allow this continual failure, and the absence of information for people who so desperately need reassuranceand they need confidence.

They need to know that not only the government but also the Australian parliament are serious about this issue, which is impacting some of the most vulnerable people in our country and in our regions.

Watch my speech here.