TOO EARLY: Defence undersecretary Steve Grzeskowiak claimed during the hearing that it was “too early for a formal acceptance of liability”. Picture: Max Mason-HubersTHE Department of Defence has been slammed for its response to the Williamtown contamination scandal, with one Senator describing it as “insulting” and another as “staggering” that it still refuses to talk about compensation packages for impactedresidents.
Tuesday’s hearing in Newcastle was the second timeofficials from Defence have fronted the Senate inquiry into contamination from the base, but it was hardly a friendly catch-up, with Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and Labor’s Sam Dastyari both highly critical of its approach.
The chilly atmosphere wasn’t helped when Defence undersecretary Steve Grzeskowiak claimed during the hearing that it was “too earlyfor a formal acceptance of liability”.
“We acknowledge thatpeopleare worried and stressed by this issue,” he said.
“Weneed to be working on evidence-based approaches [and] thetesting we do is to try to understand nature of contamination.”
However a central feature of the hearing was both senators’ push for Defence to accept responsibility and startproviding compensation in the short term, rather than waiting for the results of human impact assessments due next year.
Senator Rhiannon said it was “insulting” that Defence officials referred to what amounts toNewstart assistance payments currently available to some people impacted by the contamination, while Senator Dastyari said it was “staggering” that Defence officials had not formally discussed compensation figures with DefenceMinister Marise Payne.
Meanwhile, Defence lawyer Michael Lysewycz denied claims that he tried to shift any responsibility for compensation onto the NSWEnvironmental Protection Authority.
The state environmental watchdog’sHunter managerAdamGilligan said during evidence thatMr Lysewycz had said – during a phone hook up before it went public with the contamination news – that any precautionary actions taken by the authority would make it responsible for compensation.
Mr Lysewycz denied that he’d said that, but after the hearing finished Mr Gilligan stood by his comments,sayingDefence indicated during the phone call that it “wouldn’t be taking responsibility for actions that arose out of decisions made to implement prevention measures”.
The EPA’s chief executive Barry Buffier admitted itdid notact“sufficientlyearly orsufficientlystrongly” after it was told about the contamination by Defence, but he said it had been hesitant to act without more information.
Mr Buffiersaid Defence was“slow to accept responsibiltyfor the actions leading to the contamination” and said it should buy out commercial fishersif they are unable to return to work.