TENSE: Tuesday’s Senate inquiry hearing into contamination from the Williamtown RAAF Base at City Hall, Newcastle.DEFENCE are nothing if not sympathetic to the plight of people inWilliamtown and Salt Ash.
SteveGrzeskowiak said so time and again on Tuesdayduring evidence to the Senate Inquiry hearing in Newcastle.
Under pressure from Senators Lee Rhiannon and Sam Dastyari to accept liability for the contamination scandal and begin providing immediate and meaningful compensation to those affected, Mr Grzeskowiak, a Defence undersecretary, was relentless in his sympathy.
Defence accepts that discovering that youhave an emerging contaminant with ambiguous long-term health impacts in your ground water is challenging for residents, and it really truly feels sorry for those commercial fisherman who are now existing on aweekly Newstart payment withliterally no security beyond June next year.
It just thinks we’re all jumping the gun a bit by suggesting that it might somehow be responsible for fixing the whole mess.
Surethe contamination may have leaked directly from the air base into what used to be lush semi-rural and agricultural landbut is now just called a red-zone, and sure it might have kept that information from residents for years before it was dragged kicking and screaming to disclosure by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority.
But those are just words.
What it wantsbefore it accepts that it maybe might have had okay just a little bit to do with the anguish of an entire community in Port Stephens, isfacts.
Cold, hard and like preferably really distant, obtuse and hard to ascertain facts.
It is obviously not surprising that Defenceis reluctant to accept blame for this mess though.
Before the hearing on Tuesdaythe Newcastle Herald revealed plans toinvestigate the extent of firefighting foam contaminationat 16 Australian Defence bases,including the country’s largest operational naval baseat HMAS AlbatrossNowra.
Like the contaminated water still flowing off the base and onto neighbouring land, the cost of admitting fault is not contained to Williamtown.
And, as Peter Shannon from Shine Lawyerssaid at the Senate inquiry’s first hearing earlier in December, Defence sees its first jobwhen it deals with compensation as “protecting the public purse”.
No surprise then that Defence lawyer Michael Lysewycz reportedly told the Environmental Protection Authority duringa phone hookup that it would be responsible for compensation arising from any preventative measures the state environmental body took.(Mr Lysewcyz denies saying that, but there were a lot of government agencies on that conference call).
It is also no surprise that the only Defence representative who has seemed to understand the weight of the issue, Steve ‘Zed’ Roberton, who told a public meeting at Tomago in September that “Defence polluted here, Defence pays,” is no longer acting as a spokesman, and has quietly been replaced as Senior Air Defence Force Officer on the base.
In the end on Tuesday MrGrzeskowiak came to the heart of the matter. He couldn’t make any comments about compensation, because responsibility for that decision fallswell above his pay bracket.
As Mr Shannon said in Canberra a few weeks ago, Defence “is going to have to be pushed there, and the only institution that can do that is parliament”.
Which is why the result of the Senate inquiry, and the government’s response to it, is so important.