A motion of no confidence in the Hon Ian Hunter, Minister for the Environment, Sustainability and Conservation
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK ( 14:27 :34 ): I move:
That this council has no confidence in the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation in light of his incompetent management of the investigation into the chemical contamination and threats to residents' health in the environs of Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park.
This issue relates to the government's handling of information in relation to contamination in Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park, and in particular whether this minister has handled this matter in the public interest and the best interests of residents or whether he and his colleagues have taken a deliberate strategy to manage it in their own interests.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, was first detected at the Mitsubishi Motors site in 2008 and vapour testing has been taking place since that time. Residents were last relocated in this suburb in 2009 from the former Reckitt & Colman property at 22 Ash Avenue, which had been converted into units as transition housing under the auspices of the non-government organisation, Unity Housing. The reasoning that led to that relocation was clearly of an order to raise sufficient concern. Now I am referring to the URS draft report having been through that in some detail.
In 2011 a hotspot was detected at the Reckitt & Colman site. Consultant URS Australia undertook two significant sets of sampling data in two stages, including ongoing groundwater monitoring, soil testing and indoor vapour testing over two periods, May 2012 to March 2013 and from August to November 2013. To put things into perspective, the level of TCE in vapour as a trigger for investigation is two micrograms per square metre. Less than two micrograms is considered an acceptable risk; over 20 micrograms is deemed 'action level risk mitigation'.
Environmental health officials are less concerned with TCE vapour in open air because it tends to evaporate. They are concerned about it entering indoor areas with poor ventilation. It is usually tested for in the parts of a house which will provide pathways from ground to rooms where it is captured such as laundry closets where plumbing pipes may allow vapour to travel upwards.
A reading of 84 micrograms per square metre was found in three bedrooms at 10 Chestnut Court, an old Housing Trust property which had been vacant for eight months. It is not near the Reckitt & Colman hotspot where the other high readings have taken place. Four sources of groundwater contamination are now under question in this suburb, with concern that underground plumes have spread beneath nearby housing and is being transmitted through soil as vapour.
The suspected industrial pollution points for groundwater pollution are on the former Monroe and Mitsubishi sites. The EPA and consultants suspect that TCE may have been poured directly onto the ground at the old Reckitt & Colman property. The old railway site to the south-west also contains contamination.
My understanding is that the reading in the report received on 16 May which set off alarm bells with departmental officers was 84 micrograms per square metre. My interpretation of why the authorities are so worried is that they cannot model a pattern of vapour readings for the residences at Chestnut Court, Ash Avenue and Mimosa Crescent. There could be very similar high readings but they just do not know.
So, the sequence of events based on Hansard and our three briefings since then are: 16 May, Monroe's report is received by the EPA, which is then provided to Health within a day or so; 30 May, the EPA experts, namely Mr Peter Dolan, recommend a task force; 6 June, the EPA advised Housing SA of the public health risk; there is a meeting between SA Health, the EPA, Housing SA and Renewal SA; 11 June, the Minister for Social Housing is made aware; 16 June, the Minister for Social Housing receives a briefing; either 19 or 20 June, health risk assessors and the auditor report back to the EPA; 23 June, there is notification of the State Emergency Management Committee, which meets on 25 June, proposes the relocation and a task force with the EPA as the lead agency; 30 June, cabinet considers and decides to relocate residents, the Minister for Housing receives advice on implementation; 1 July, the interagency task force meets some six weeks later.
The following day this issue was raised in parliament and 10 full sitting days had elapsed, giving the minister ample time to provide a statement. I asked the minister that day whether the EPA had received information about a significantly increased risk to residents in Clovelly Park and Flinders Park six weeks previously, to which he said yes. I then asked whether residents had been informed that they would be asked to vacate their properties. What was his response? We knew they had not been told yet.
Under the government strategy, rather than tell people as soon as the decision was made at cabinet on Monday, residents were going to be doorknocked on Thursday afternoon, with no prospect of parliamentary scrutiny. The minister's response is typical of the weasel words we had been enduring. He says:
The EPA has been working with a number of stakeholders in this area over a period of time. Recently it has been brought to my attention that the ongoing low-level risk has risen and the EPA will be conducting some community consultation in the very near future, primarily getting in touch with residents and other effective—
at which point the Hon. Rob Lucas interjects—
Well they haven't been told.
Then the minister says:
The honourable members opposite are again making claims which have no substantiation or basis in truth.
Who is telling the truth in that exchange? So, I tried another way and asked the minister whether he could guarantee that residents would not be asked to vacate their properties. This is the response:
The government will be taking all appropriate actions in this regard.
Well, no-one agrees with that statement. He continues:
First of all, we will be communicating with the residents.
He should have added 'at a time of convenience to the government'. Then the Hon. Mr Wade asks a similar question, that if the contamination is only low level why will the minister not rule out relocation? The minister claims in response that words were being put in his mouth, a term he often uses in here—verballing. He repeats that communication will take place with residents first and that he will get back to the parliament in due course. Yes, thank you. The Hon. David Ridgway then cites from the EPA's own website:
Residents can expect urgent information to be communicated face to face, with follow-up letters from the EPA.
The minister then says that this has been an ongoing concern, which is partly true—contamination has been known, but it is the first time the government has been made aware of an indoor air sample of that magnitude. The minister then refuses to advise whether the local MP has been advised.
The next question from me is to ask the minister when he first knew about contamination and what action he took. He did not answer that question, but for the first time in question time in the preceding period he provided some details to the council about the matter and told us he would not be answering any more questions.
In the meantime, my colleagues in the other place were asking the Premier and ministers about the same issue. The Premier's response is to refer to the need for 'a very extensive communication strategy' to be implemented in favour of answering our questions. Legitimate questions about whether the State Emergency Management Committee met, when Health was first advised, and whether the Minister for Local Government, the Minister for Manufacturing, and the Minister for Social Housing knew were all met with stonewalling, one sentence replies indicating that not one of them would be answering this issue—ministers ducking for cover!
This minister, having shown contempt for this institution in his most belligerent fashion by refusing to answer questions about where the residents would be relocated, 3½ hours later was doorknocking them to give that very advice. In an interview that evening, on 2 July, with Jeremy Cordeaux, the minister said a few things that are quite interesting. He says:
We've discovered a level that we think we need to talk to the community about, but this is a level, I am advised by Health, about 1,000 times less than what's acceptable for occupational exposure.
He later says is 27,000 times less—1,000 times versus 27,000 times less—a slight difference! It was actually a reading of 84 micrograms per square metre in one of the vacated properties that sent up a red flag, which was so inconsistent with previous vapour readings, which were in the order of two, five or six, and in an unexpected location. The minister then goes on to talk about when he was alerted. He says:
A report came to me just last week. I have decided that we will actually communicate to the residents.
I am sure they would be pleased about that. That was interesting because the following day he flatly refused to advise the parliament when he first knew about the report and when he first knew about the relocation. Things did not improve the next day in question time. The minister provided a ministerial statement, which I find fault with on the following points:
1.It focuses at length on letters and communications between the EPA and authorities with residents, which are already on the public record and effectively not new information.
2.It avoids the key question, which everybody is asking at this stage: if this threat is not particularly serious or urgent, why relocate residents?
3.The statement also refers to an interagency task force being established, which met on 25 June and made recommendations to relocate residents.
In our briefings, we were advised that it was actually the State Emergency Management Committee that met on 25 June and that an interagency task force first met on 1 July, the day after the cabinet had agreed to the relocation.
In his responses to questions, the minister tried to shift the blame from government for its failure to advise, having sat on this information for six weeks, to blaming the opposition for having the temerity to raise the issue. Residents who were interviewed by the media took a different view from the government: they would like to have known sooner rather than later. It was an exercise in ducking and weaving.
One of the many answers in question time that he flatly refused to provide was when he first knew about the URS report. Even when prompted with a date on which the housing minister first knew about increased risks to residents, he further refused to answer on what date he was advised about the relocation, and the Leader of the Government then wasted the rest of question time with a Dorothy Dixer about olive oil.
In the House of Assembly, housing minister Zoe Bettison said that she was first made aware of the air vapour levels on 11 June by her Housing SA executive director. She further said that, on 16 June, 'I received a verbal briefing on this matter by the department,' noting that the lead agency on this matter was the EPA. She says she then received a briefing on 30 June on how Housing SA was implementing the advice received from the EPA.
Minister Bettison is first made aware that indoor air vapour is a threat to Housing SA residents on 11 June, one month after the EPA receives the report. She receives a briefing five days later. How can it be that minister Hunter only knew about the report in the week beginning 23 June? When did he know? That still remains unanswered. This minister certainly looked like someone who did not want to come clean to the parliament. If he was telling Jeremy Cordeaux the truth, that just beggars belief.
Let's put this into perspective: the EPA is the lead agency and minister Hunter has confirmed that he took the communication strategy to cabinet. The decision made at the cabinet meeting on Monday 30 June was to advise residents at 6pm on Thursday 3 July.
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: Why 6pm on Thursday?
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Why? You may well ask.
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: Six pm—sneaky 6pm.
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Indeed—avoiding the scrutiny of parliament. On FIVEaa, on Leon Byner's program on 3 July, minister Hunter lamented that the issue was raised in parliament and changed the government's communication strategy. He said:
Senior members of the government formed a view last week and communicated that to ministers. I took that to cabinet on Monday. We decided to communicate this to residents on Thursday. Today we had to bring it forward to last night because of the irresponsible behaviour in parliament.
Leon Byner then said to him:
Is it irresponsible to bring up something that is public health where the residents find out from the media?
Minister Hunter said:
That's the irresponsibility. We wanted to tell people directly ourselves. Instead, the Liberal opposition wanted to play politics with this and bring it up in parliament.
Leon Byner then said:
Why did there have to be a delay from Monday? Why couldn't it have been done Monday night?
Minister Hunter said:
We needed to bring together our health doorknocking teams, we needed to print documents, type up letters.
To which I say: utter bollocks. The language used by minister Hunter on talkback at the time was (and there are a few choice quotes here) that it was 'thousands of times less than occupational exposure' and that 'out of an abundance of caution, we are relocating residents', to which I say: how would you feel if someone came knocking on your door at 6 o'clock at night saying, 'We're from the government; you need to leave your house'? He refers to:
…chronic health risk where we know that some people have lived in these areas for decades. This is not news to them. We've known about this for years.
He is downplaying it all. He said, 'It is important to get it into perspective,' so, 'Take a cold a shower,' I think is the message there. He also said, 'The risk to residents is long-term exposure to elevated levels of TCE.' The government does not know what levels they might be. Those high levels cannot be ruled out because there have not been enough tests done to rule them out.
When challenged by journalists and talkback radio hosts about whether it looked like the government was putting media management ahead of residents' interests, the minister told them that was a silly suggestion. He was asked on ABC's breakfast program, and when he fronted the TV cameras in Clovelly Park on the evening of 2 July, whether he had apologised, he said yes, but when David Bevan asked whether he had anything to apologise for, he said, 'No, I don't.'
In that interview, the minister started to show his characteristic sloppiness for details. When he was asked about readings in the houses, the minister said, 'My last advice is it had just ticked above that amount,' which is the two. Indoor air testing in December 2012 was actually five to six.
The Liberal opposition was given a briefing from the EPA on Saturday 5 July at which we were able to clarify some points that had been omitted or fudged by ministers. We had some silly game playing about those events. On 7 July, the government finally took our advice and extended the testing area, the so-called blue zone, and we believe that if an abundance of caution, as they like to call it, had been applied, the location of the source sites and plumes would have led to testing being done in these areas before now.
On 9 July, the EPA appeared at the Marion council, but residents were not allowed to ask questions and they were clearly seeking answers. This was one week after the story had broken, and some level of intensive communication, in my view, should have been provided. One lady who was interviewed by Sonya Feldhoff on the breakfast program said, 'The information is still very unclear.'
On 12 July, the government said it had pledged to hold community meetings—still waiting. The following day, Mr Justin Pearce, who has become one of the spokespeople (he is one of the two private homeowners in the area), is quoted in the Sunday Mail as saying that no-one had contacted him since the doorknocking on 2 July. He said:
I don't know what the hell is going on; I am paying off my home and don't know what to do. If my home is full of toxic fumes, I guess I have to get out, but I have not been contacted by anyone to tell me what is going on.
On 14 July the minister was quoted as saying, 'A public meeting for residents will be likely in a week,' several weeks afterwards, 'once the scope of further testing has been finalised.' To which I say: why wait? On that same day, 12 days after the issue had been first raised and nine days after the critical reading of 84 had been provided to the opposition, when you would hope that the minister would have made sure that he was abreast of all the facts, getting testy on the breakfast program he was specifically asked about the reading in vacant Housing SA properties and stated that it was up to about eight or 10, when it was 84.
He then dismisses whether any of the residents in the area might be particularly vulnerable, for instance, newborn babies. There is more characteristic sloppiness: he has also asked about whether any of the properties have been sold and refers to what I think he means is the old Reckitt & Colman site which became Unity Housing and is now the James Brown Memorial Trust units—which he described as 'an admin building not suitable for housing', when it had actually been converted into flats.
On 16 July the radio interview train wreck continued when he tried to split hairs with David Penberthy and whether he is feeling the pressure or he has just decided that the best form of defence is to attack—the government, now having written to 1,400 people in Mitchell Park, the minister continues to refuse people free health checks, repeating the line that there is no evidence of a threat to their health from TCE. At which point I say there is no evidence that there is not a threat to their health because the evidence has not been collected.
Again, we have feedback from people in the area who were being vox-popped on radio. One of the business owners in Mitchell Park said:
They are not being honest with people. They're first telling them that there is a scare then that the scare isn't as big as what they think. We finally got an apology from the Premier on the 19th and we had a public meeting organised by the Xenophon group, the Hon. John Darley and Justin Pearce.
I think at this point the government tried to say, 'We are changing our strategy, mea culpa,' but then puts it back to the residents to ask them how they would like to be communicated with. As one of the residents so succinctly said, 'Please do not treat us as if you need us to tell you how to communicate with us.'
It was obvious that those people wanted information, facts. Sending letters to people, a single doorknock event and inviting people to come into the EPA just does not cut it. By this stage the government, having reversed its decision to provide free health checks, has probably confused people even more because they were told at the meeting that tests are not available anyway.
On 21 July a new piece of information came to light via an interview with the CEO of the EPA, Mr Tony Circelli. Again, this question was put to him: why are people being relocated? He says:
There is sufficient concern for us in terms of not so much what we have measured in the house but what we have measured in the soils; that there are very high levels of vapour in the soil.
Ian Hentschke then asks him, 'So they are higher than two micrograms in the soil.' Mr Circelli says:
Oh much higher, much higher. They range from quite low to 50,000 or even higher than that, depending on where you are in the site.
Where has that been in the government's message question? When were they going to tell people that one?
Estimates—we are all familiar with that; wasting time for a toilet break and filling it up with a ministerial statement. They were in the mea culpa mode at that stage. But then we had that beautiful expression: 'co-design a new engagement paradigm'. I think the minister might be taking advice from Gwyneth Paltrow's people at this stage.
Today is to be the first public meeting organised by the government and Marion council—hooray! My view is that lack of resources to conduct testing outside this additional area is partly to blame, or a large part to blame. If an abundance of caution had been applied then testing in that area where residents are now being relocated from and in those extra areas would have been undertaken.
I would just like to quote from Remediation Australia, which is a publication put out by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remediation (CRC CARE) based at Mawson Lakes. In reference to the 2009 relocation of residents, they have a case study and it talks about why the residents were relocated. It talks about clear dichotomy of results, which I think is what we are talking about in this latest episode, but they make this interesting statement, as follows:
In the case described here regulatory and financial constraints led to an expedited indoor air investigation.
That says to me 'bit short of money'—even though the EPA is a profit centre these days, raising money for the government to the tune of $8 million a year.
My last quote, you will be pleased to know, is from the Statutory Authorities Review Committee. You may remember that the EPA was referred to SARC to look at the Edwardstown issue, which was similarly poorly handled. One of the members of that committee was one Hon. I.K. Hunter. Mr Peter Dolan from the EPA is giving evidence, and he is explaining how testing is done for contamination on industrial sites. The Hon. I.K. Hunter then says:
Hypothetically, then, there could be further contamination of groundwater around metropolitan Adelaide that you are not aware of and which you won't find out about until someone decides to sell a property and do that due diligence?
Mr Dolan says several things, including:
Because you don't have site contamination unless you have source, pathway and sensitive receiver—
which is a very unfortunate term for human beings. He then says:
You may have chemicals in soil which you would rather wasn't there, but there is not actually contamination under the legislation until there is some chance of somebody being exposed. The chance occurs when you rezone and change to residential, and you want to start building things—houses, schools, whatever—on a site that might be contaminated. But before that, there is not actually technically site contamination present.
The Hon. I.K. Hunter then asked:
I understand the definition of 'technically' as proven under the act, but nonetheless, it is still in situ. Given everything we have learned through the Edwardstown situation, and given that you have just said you could possibly predict where there may be contamination, wouldn't it be prudent for the EPA to actually go out and do some investigation just to make itself aware of where it is prevalent, and where it isn't?
The Hon. R.I. Lucas: Who said that?
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: The Hon. I.K. Hunter, as a backbencher. As a minister, he has a completely different view. This minister, in particular, has demonstrated no concern for the public and no concern for the residents. When the Liberal Party called for a public meeting, the government said no. They have finally called one today. Yes, you get a tick, but this late? When we called for further testing, the government said no, and now has. When we called for free public health checks, the government said no and now it has said yes. They have delayed everything in this process to suit their own terms and not out of any abundance of concern for local residents, and that is why we have no confidence in the minister.
The Hon. M.C. PARNELL ( 14:52 :03 ): The Greens are supporting this motion because we believe that the government has failed to take the environment seriously and it has failed to take public health seriously. The motion refers specifically to the minister's handling of contaminated land issues at Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park, but the problem goes much wider. This motion is also about the priority the government has shown towards public health and the environment over many years, in its legislative program, its administrative decisions and, most importantly, in its budgetary decisions, but I will start with the recent contamination issues in the southern suburbs.
Firstly, nobody is suggesting that it was the government itself that polluted the local environment and groundwater with TCE; nevertheless, the government is responsible for reacting appropriately and in a timely manner when pollution is detected that may impact public health. Reacting in an appropriate and timely manner requires consultation and coordination between a range of government agencies, and it also requires the government to use properly the tools that parliament has made available to it in order to make sure that the best decisions are made in a timely manner. When it comes to site contamination, those tools include the ability of the EPA to issue a site contamination assessment order to force companies to undertake appropriate testing. If that seems too heavy-handed in the circumstances, the EPA also has the ability to approve and enforce a voluntary site contamination assessment proposal, under section 103I of the Environment Protection Act.
At first glance, it looks as if that is what has happened here, but it also looks as if it was not done properly and, as a result, the testing took years longer than it should have, and the question as to whether it was a safe environment to live in was unnecessarily and, I believe, unreasonably delayed. It is hard to understand why information that was available in 2009, and actions that were, in fact, taken back then to move out residents or to leave properties vacant, did not trigger a more urgent and comprehensive response than the one we have seen in the last few weeks. Whether those delays and inaction are the personal responsibility of the minister or the fault of other government officers, the bottom line is that the buck stops with the minister.
From what I can tell, this matter would have been resolved much faster if either the EPA had done some of the testing itself or if it had followed the process set out in section 103I of the Environment Protection Act and forced Monroe, Mitsubishi or whatever other companies were potentially responsible for the pollution to sign an enforceable voluntary site contamination assessment proposal. From what I can tell this never happened. If it had, the EPA could have insisted on appropriate time lines, methodology and reporting. If the proposal were in writing and approved by the EPA, then if the private companies that commissioned the testing, or their consultants, dragged their feet, the EPA could have used the compulsory avenue to get the testing back on track.
I also note that under section 109 of the Environment Protection Act (that is the public register provisions), the EPA is obliged to publish any voluntary site contamination assessment proposals it has agreed to. I cannot see that this has happened, so it is difficult for us to know whether the EPA accepted a handshake agreement that was reneged upon, whether it failed to put appropriate time lines in any written agreement, or whether it did not ever put its mind to an appropriate time frame for testing. These are questions the state government is yet to answer, and they go to the heart of confidence.
It may be that with the wisdom of hindsight the EPA would have gone down a more prescriptive path, but it seems they did not. The minister, or perhaps even his predecessor, was not paying attention and, as result, we are having this debate today.
Of course, testing is expensive, and that raises the question of where the money might come from. This parliament has previously agreed that the 'polluter pays' principle should apply, but there are instances where the state itself can and should step in to undertake testing. Is there money available? We need only look at the Waste to Resources Fund, to look at where the solid waste levy money goes, to see that there are tens of millions of dollars sitting, unspent and unallocated; ostensibly for the protection and good of the environment, but not yet spent. That money is burning a hole in the Treasurer's pocket. It needs to be allocated to the environment.
So why has the state government abandoned the environment and public health sectors? I refer to an interview that the minister gave on 25 June with Ian Henschke on 891 ABC, where he attempted to justify savage budget cuts to his own portfolio. In that interview he effectively blamed the environment movement for not protesting enough, and that that is why the environment gets a smaller share of the state budget.
However, I will not verbal the minister; I will refer to the extracts from media monitoring. The presenter, Ian Henschke, played an extract from an interview he had conducted previously with Professor David Paton who, members would know, has also been vocal in his opposition to environmental budget cuts. Having played that interview, Mr Henschke asked the minister:
And that was Professor David Paton…he's putting it pretty plainly…the priorities have moved on and the environment really doesn't matter as much it used to…and you support that view?
The minister replied:
Well, there's no question about that. We don't see 20,000 people out on the streets marching against national governments who want to log the Tasmanian forests like we did when I was a young person.
The only message that people took from that was that the environment movement, the conservation movement, and people who care about public health have only themselves to blame for not protesting enough. A remarkable thing to say. We know that it is often the squeaky hinge that gets the oil; I should say that more often than not in this state it is often well-placed political donations that help remove the squeaks as well and get projects approved. However, to say that public funding of important environmental projects is somehow connected to the level of protest in the community does not fill us with any confidence.
The assessment of the Conservation Council was that the cuts to the environment budget were close to 40 per cent in just one year, and the council described it as 'not just an efficiency gain but a full-on gutting'. The result of course is job losses, and important environmental programs abandoned.
I raised that very matter in question time in this place with the minister, in relation to cuts to the native vegetation branch, and his response was, 'This Labor government is the best friend the environment ever had,' to which the response is a predictable one: with friends like that, who needs enemies. The cuts to the environment budget and cuts to environment agencies are a reflection of government priorities, and the Greens believe the government has those priorities all wrong.
Finally, what I would say is that, in supporting this motion, we are seeking to send a message to the state government that it does have its priorities wrong in relation to the environment but—I have to say this—nothing in this support should imply that we have confidence in the alternative government either. We know from debates on environmental issues that we have had so far that there is a strong anti-environment mood within the Liberals as well, and one need look no further than the debate on marine parks. I would say that if the opposition were to come into government, if they were even a shadow of their federal counterparts, it would reflect an absolute disaster for our state, but that is not to take away from the fact that the Greens' response to this motion before us now is that we do not have confidence in this government in relation to these matters.
The Hon. J.A. DARLEY ( 15:00 :49 ): I rise to support the motion. In addition to the sentiments expressed by others in this place, I am concerned at the lack of response and support private homeowners in these areas have been given. Focus seems to be primarily on public housing tenants; however, little consideration seems to have been given to private homeowners. If consideration has been given, this has not been communicated to the owners.
Effective communication has also been lacking to those who have been contacted. Information provided to residents in the area has been extremely technical and therefore nearly impossible to understand. It seems that assumptions about the residents' abilities to comprehend this information were incorrectly made. Further to this, it seems that assumptions have been made regarding residents' access to computers and technological ability. I understand information has been made available on the EPA's website. However, not everyone has access to a computer, or if they do, they may not know how to access the EPA's website in order to gain the information they need.
I am concerned that there seems to be a lack of a comprehensive plan for Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park. The EPA has identified an area which encompasses some 1,400 residents; however, no details have been provided as to which properties are most at risk, which properties will be tested, and the effects if contamination is found at certain locations. If there is a plan, again, this has not been communicated with the public.
I acknowledge that the minister is now trying to make amends by asking those affected or potentially affected as to how they can improve on their communication; however, for many it is too little, too late. It should not be up to the public to inform a minister how matters should be handled. It is the minister's responsibility, and indeed the government's responsibility, to look out for the interests of the public and inform them accordingly.
The Hon. R.L. BROKENSHIRE ( 15:03 :00 ): I rise to advise the house that Family First supports this motion regarding no confidence in the minister. At the outset, we would say that the government needs to come back to reality and realise and accept that the parliament is above the government, and the parliament is here to serve and represent the community of South Australia and to keep the pressure on the government. The minister may not believe that, and I am not surprised by that, because the fact is that this government for 12 years now has shown nothing but contempt for the Parliament of South Australia. However, for the people of South Australia, more than ever before, as we face another four years of a very arrogant government, we need to represent those people.
Family First were very surprised when we saw what we thought were legitimate and bona fide questions being raised in this house by, in this case, the shadow minister for environment, that the government seemed to be in denial, did not want to be open and transparent, and in fact castigated the shadow minister very unfairly, I believe, when all that member was doing, on behalf of people who had raised this matter with her, was to make some inquiries—inquiries because the government were not prepared to go out and actually do the job.
I believe, and what is very evident since this government has come back in for another four years of what will be 16 years in office, that particularly in the Legislative Council we have seen filibustering, we have seen out of order comments thrown by ministers back to members of parliament who are asking legitimate questions, and we have seen Dorothy Dixers that are beyond even ministerial statements and just take up so much of question time. Unfortunately and sadly, we have not seen answers—proper answers, detailed answers—to our questions.
When it comes to the confidence of all ministers, you would expect them to be on top of their brief. But what we see day in day out in this house during question time is copious notes, indexed, and when a question is asked they go from A to Z to try to find one that looks to be around the mark of what has been asked as a detailed question, and then they filibuster for another five, 10, 15, or in some cases 20 minutes. That is not democracy for the people of this state, and that is not what the Westminster system is about.
When listening to the answers, I thought three things. Maybe I was initially sorry for the minister because even now I do not know whether the minister is simply doing a job under instruction from a government, and that worries me. At best, there was ineptitude by the government in this matter; at worst, it is a cover-up. It brought connotations into my mind when I listened to those questions—and I have deliberated over this at some length for some period of time—but when did the government really start to realise that this was getting to the serious and pointy end? Was it before the election? Was this deliberately held back because of the marginal seat of Ashford? If that were the case, I would suggest that these people need to be absolutely outraged and furious.
I would like evidence and openness from the government, and I would ask that that evidence be tabled in the house so that we can see the paper trail. We know that when you go right back to when Premier Weatherill was the minister for environment he was personally aware of this. We know that communication is not always full and frank in that office from another select committee we have been involved in. You have to become a little cynical when you are not getting cooperation from the government of the day.
These people deserve to be totally involved in what is happening in their area. They have life savings, and they have loved homes, whether they are public or private. Sometimes these people have been in these homes for 20 or 30 years, and the disruption to them now is just unbelievable. There are also issues around their health. Hopefully, there is no health degradation for that community, but we do not know.
What I am concerned and surprised about was what I saw in the media, where the EPA absolutely stonewalled when questions were asked about what was going to happen with the health checks for these people. We saw Dr Buckett stonewalling as well, but on the same television news that night, we saw the Premier under pressure, saying there will be health check-ups, they will be available and they will provide money.
Where is the detailed cooperation and communication between the EPA, the health department, the environment and natural resources areas and the government and cabinet? We have agencies saying, ‘No, we're not going to pay for or provide health checks,’ for these innocent people—some of whom have been encouraged to move in there with new subdivision developments in recent years—and then the Premier is saying, ‘Well, they will have health checks paid for.’ At this point in time, I do not know whether they are going to get health checks paid for or not; there is no clear communication.
I do not believe that the government have worked properly when it comes to notification because if they knew about this several days to weeks before, as has been highlighted by the shadow minister, why did it take them almost a week from when they put it through to cabinet before the communication went out? How come when the terrible shadow minister raised this in the parliament they were able to get the teams together and have material printed and out there that night?
They set all that up within a six-hour period. You do lose faith and trust in a government when they are saying, 'Well, cabinet is now advised, but we will wait several days before we advise the people.' Again, when it is a confidence issue for the people and members of this house, when a government has supposedly been monitoring this for several years—I would suggest at least six years, if not longer—why were there not good management practices to keep those people in the loop right through that period of time? What was happening? Where was the communication?
Property values are at stake, and there also seems to be some secrecy around the matter. It has been expressed to us that residents have no confidence in this government and the person representing the government as the lead minister, that is, the minister, and people have been expressing that in the media over several weeks. This has been a terribly poorly handled matter. It has been in the media for at least 21 successive days, and when an issue is in the media for that long it says that there is a problem with the management of the issue and that perhaps the government have put their self-interest before the interests of the people they are supposed to represent.
Therefore, Family First says that any member of parliament who raises any issue with the government and, indeed, any minister of the government, deserves respect and proper thorough and detailed answers so that we can go about our democratic business of representing the people of South Australia—because that is our role, that is the primary role, that is the number one role. This government has not realised that.
There has been cover-up after cover-up after cover-up. We have inquiries into Gillman and the like. Why do we have those inquiries? Because secret business is occurring. It has to stop, and if it means that there has to be a vote of no confidence in a minister to get a message through to a Premier who said that he was going to be different from the previous premier and that he was going to consult, consider and announce, so be it. They have to start doing that and working with the people of South Australia.
There is no demonstration of any change by this government whatsoever. Whether it is ineptitude or cover-up in this case, the minister has a vote of no confidence against him, and based on what I have had to say—more so in terms of the government than the actual individual minister—we will be supporting this motion.
The Hon. S.G. WADE ( 15:12 :40 ): I rise to support the motion of no confidence. The minister has shown disregard for the residents of Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park and the broader community, and the motion is well justified. Ministers of the government are called to uphold a higher standard in the interests of all South Australians. When they accept the office, they accept the responsibility to put the interests of South Australians first.
Minister Hunter has not put the interests of South Australians first. He put his party's political interests first when he sat on information that showed that the health of Clovelly Park residents could be at risk. He showed disregard for their health and for their right to know about risks affecting them when he repeatedly stonewalled on providing them information and repeatedly refused to engage the community.
Regrettably, it took the questions of the opposition here and in the other place to force this minister to front-up to his responsibility, yet he did not do so willingly. Even after repeated questioning, the information was not forthcoming. When the issue was raised in parliament, when did the minister say he was planning to act? 'Tomorrow,' as though it was an item on a perpetual list, a 'things to do tomorrow' list.
The minister has repeatedly asserted that he will wait for scientific advice before acting, yet the scientific advice he had already received showed a significant potential risk. Did he want to know that residents were most certainly at risk before informing them? Surely, if your health were potentially at risk you would want to know right away, not just when the government had prepared a PR plan.
Rather than provide residents with the information to make an informed decision about the risk to them, the minister clearly substituted the residents' judgement with his own. It was as if he was saying, 'Just trust me. I am from the government. I have all the facts. I know what is best for you.' People could not even be trusted to look after their own health. It is the view of the opposition in moving this motion that it is the minister who cannot be trusted, and his conduct in these matters cannot be trusted.
Minister Hunter is not unusual in not suffering fools. What makes him unusual is that he thinks everyone is a fool except himself. It is breathtaking that the government expects the community to unquestionably trust that the government will make important decisions on behalf of residents without their knowledge. Tragically this pattern of arrogant paternalism is reminiscent of the government's handling of child protection matters. The exposure of the Clovelly Park contamination in parliament was almost one year to the day that the Debelle report was released. It was yet another example of this government's lack of transparency, the suppression of information that the public needed and deserved to know, and the arrogance with which this government assumes the personal decision-making capacity for people who are entitled to make their own informed choices.
The minister owed it to the residents of Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park to tell them the moment his government was aware that a significant risk was present, not when it was convenient for the government to do so. Those residents can take no comfort from the minister's new project of co-designing a new engagement paradigm when he cannot even tell them plainly what risks are facing them. What hope does a community have of getting understandable information from the government when even the terminology used to improve communication is 'co-designing a new engagement paradigm'?
This is not a PR problem that has simply come about because of miscommunication. It has certainly been made worse by the government's failure to communicate. This is a public health problem. It does not take a scientist, a spin doctor or a bureaucrat to identify that; it should not be hard for the minister to identify that. Representing the interests of the residents of this state takes more than just relaying readings from testing reports. It involves the minister making sure that South Australians are fully and frankly provided with information that they need to make a decision in their best interests and at the earliest opportunity.
The interests of those residents have been betrayed by this government and by the minister, and I ask: why should this house have any confidence in the minister when he has so dramatically betrayed the confidence of the residents of Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park? Why should we uphold confidence in a minister when there is clearly none left in the community? This council, as representatives of those residents, can do nothing less than express the same lack of confidence in this minister.
The Hon. G.E. GAGO (Minister for Employment, Higher Education and Skills, Minister for Science and Information Economy, Minister for the Status of Women, Minister for Business Services and Consumers) ( 15:17 :35 ): I rise to oppose this outrageous motion.
The PRESIDENT: Order!
The Hon. G.E. GAGO: It is obviously a meaningless political stunt by the opposition and crossbenchers. This motion is nothing more than a disgraceful attempt, particularly by the opposition, to distract from the fact that they are the ones who have acted in a highly irresponsible way. The opposition has done nothing more than use this opportunity to whip up a frenzy—
The PRESIDENT: Order! The honourable minister, could you sit down please? We have just gone through a number of contributions in silence. I think the honourable minister, the Leader of the Government in the upper house, has the right to be heard in silence, as has anyone else who speaks. I will not tolerate people abusing that right. Just listen. The honourable minister.
The Hon. G.E. GAGO: Thank you, Mr President. The opposition has done nothing more than use this opportunity to whip up a frenzy and scare residents. From the day they used this place to launch their scare campaign, the opposition have not had a single moment of regard for the residents of Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park. They all knew that the government had planned to communicate with residents the very next day. They knew, and they did not accept the Premier's invitation to wait so that residents were able to be properly informed. They took the irresponsible decision to simply announce this matter in parliament and let the residents be informed through the media.
What we have seen from those opposite is typical of Liberal Party politics. They use fear to divide the community for their own self-interests. How incredibly disrespectful of those residents! We know that when people hear things from other sources and are not given an opportunity to be given full information, and not from the government, this starts a process that robs people of confidence and trust. This is in direct contrast with the behaviour of the Hon. Ian Hunter, who has held the residents' interests in highest regard, attempting to notify residents first. His attempt was to notify residents first and inform them, not grandstand here in parliament.
We note that since then the Premier and the minister have acknowledged that in this case the government's communication with residents could have been better.
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: Could have been a lot better.
The Hon. G.E. GAGO: He has indicated that the government has not done—
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway interjecting:
The PRESIDENT: Minister, could you sit down, please. You moved a no-confidence motion in the minister. You have stated your case, and we are now listening to those people who oppose that. I think they have every right to say it in peace and quiet. Have respect. The minister can continue.
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: Sensible, intelligent contributions we will listen to in silence.
The PRESIDENT: Have you had your lunch today? Have you had your lunch, because you are behaving in a very unusual manner. You are the Leader of the Opposition. You should set the example. It is unusual during a no-confidence motion not to allow the case against to be prosecuted.
The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: We have only had one in the last 20 years, and it was about you. We won it, you lost!
The PRESIDENT: I do not want you turning this into a circus. You would think it was a serious matter to have a no-confidence motion. You cheapen the whole aspect of this by carrying on the way you are doing. I want to hear the minister and other people want to hear the minister on their position.
The Hon. G.E. GAGO: He has indicated that the government has not done a good enough job to satisfy the community. He and the Premier have recognised that publicly. What is more, both the Premier and the minister have apologised for this. The minister has outlined that a residents' group will work with the EPA to decide how best to determine communication into the future. He has worked with residents to do that. The government has been focused on making sure residents have the information they need.
What we have not wanted to do was put out information that is not complete, and information that causes unnecessary anxiety to residents. What we are now having to do, because of the reckless irresponsibility of the opposition, is to try to now restore community confidence. It really just shows that they have nothing positive to talk about, and that they like to operate in a highly destructive way.
I urge members on the crossbenches to consider this vote carefully, and obviously to reject the fearmongering from those opposite. I urge them to recognise that the opposition, by deliberately raising it in parliament, prevented the affected residents from being advised of information first-hand. They disenfranchised them. This motion is just another stunt in a long line of reckless actions by those opposite since questions were asked on 2 July.
It has always been the practice to conduct ourselves in this chamber with the utmost dignity, and those opposite know they are not doing that today with this cheap political stunt. The Premier has clearly articulated:
I have confidence in my minister and I have confidence in government agencies that are doing their best to communicate.
If members opposite are truly here to represent the interests of our state, they would stop wasting our time with such petty motions and debate legislation that we are voted in to do.
The PRESIDENT: Order!
The Hon. K.L. VINCENT ( 15:24 :12 ): Dignity for Disability will support the motion. Since the story of the TCE contamination in Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park broke just over three weeks ago, I have to say that the Minister for Environment has not seemed interested in genuinely answering questions about this serious potential public and environmental health issue. Whether or not you are happy about the way in which this information came to the public attention, and to the attention of local residents impacted, as the minister of the lead agency in the matter I would have thought that Mr Hunter would have the duty to take responsibility for what has occurred and what happens in the future.
It has been very disappointing to repeatedly see the minister approaching this matter in a resentful and belligerent manner. We need ministers to take responsibility for their agencies and to take seriously all the concerns that residents have. It is reasonable that people would feel scared, worried and concerned about their own health and the health of their families who live with them or have previously done so.
As of today, we certainly cannot change the fact that there is TCE contamination in Clovelly Park and Mitchell Park. I am certainly not saying it is the minister's fault that it is there, but the minister does have control over how he and his department respond to questions and queries from the residents affected by this. This entire episode has highlighted how little we know about former industrial sites around South Australia, and as other members of this chamber have pointed out, we need to do something about that urgently.
As in all matters, whether or not they are considered urgent or a potential public health risk, governments should be open, accountable and open to consultation and hearing from all of their constituents. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, so I dearly hope that if nothing else this is a learning exercise for the government.
Dignity for Disability takes this issue of industrial contamination in residential areas extremely seriously, and we also take motions of no confidence in a minister very seriously. As members will be aware, we have previously abstained from voting on a no confidence motion against a minister in this chamber, but on this occasion we think the minister has been lax in his duty to the South Australian people and for this reason we support this motion.
The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation) ( 15:26 :44 ): From the outset, it is important to make plain that the government's priority has always been the health and safety of South Australians. We aim to provide affected residents with information in a way which is understandable. Clearly, in this case we have not been able to achieve that. We have apologised to residents and now we are working with the community to develop a better way forward.
We have asked residents to work with us, to come into the EPA to see all the information available to government and tell us the best way to communicate with them. Today, a new community reference group involving people living in the area is holding its first meeting. This group will help inform how we can better communicate with residents and ensure they have accurate, up-to-date information in a way that is easy for them to understand, because the community needs to have confidence in the government's agencies which are working to protect them and the information that has been provided. That is what this process is all about.
Our concern is for the residents—it has always been for the residents first. It is no doubt a distressing time for them, which is why they need to be armed with the facts. We have advice from experts that there is no risk from visiting a local park or eating home-grown fruits or vegetables. The fact is that there is no immediate risk to people's health. Testing has been done as relevant information has been uncovered. We know that there was a reading of 84 micrograms of TCE per cubic metre in one room in one round of testing, but what we often do not hear is that that was a test in one room in a vacant, closed-up home.
What you have to remember is that levels recorded tend to be higher in vacant homes because they are not ventilated. Other rooms in the same home recorded readings of less than 0.5 micrograms of TCE per cubic metre—in the same closed-up home. That should give you some idea of the variability that you get when you conduct indoor tests. The fact is that two micrograms is not the trigger for an immediate health risk; it is the trigger for further investigation, and that is exactly what we are doing—further investigation.
I am no longer a working scientist, but I get advice from people who are, and they tell me that the best way forward is to go ahead with soil vapour and groundwater testing. Indoor air samples are extremely variable and do not give you an accurate indication of vapour rates on their own.
As a matter of fact on 2 July 2014 the government brought forward planned communication with the residents of Clovelly Park to provide an update on investigations into site contamination, and that was because of the way in which this matter was raised in parliament. The government is committed to providing residents with all the information they want and that they need.
On Sunday, 20 July 2014 I attended a public meeting organised by a resident from the Clovelly Park area, with officers from the EPA, SA Health and Housing SA. At this meeting, residents were invited to form a community reference group to work with us to determine the best way forward to communicate the facts. I am pleased to advise, as I said, that they will have their first meeting today. It will also be an opportunity for the members of that group to decide how we provide information into the future, especially the steps we can take to ensure that it is presented in a way that is clear. I want to ensure that the community receives all the facts they need to feel secure in the knowledge that their health and wellbeing is being protected.
The advice from scientists and health professionals has consistently been that there is no immediate risk to residents in the relocation area. In addition, there is no evidence of any health risk to residents in the further investigation area. It is important, however, to determine the full extent of site contamination and that is why the EPA will undertake further investigations to determine groundwater and soil vapour contamination in the areas further south into Clovelly Park and west into Mitchell Park.
The testing will involve drilling of about 140 bores, including roughly 37 groundwater bores, 30 soil bores and 73 soil vapour bores. This work is scheduled to start in August with the results likely to be known by the end of the year. We will provide the results to the community as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are advising residents not to use bore water and to inform the EPA if they do have a bore on their property.
We will make sure that people have access to the facts. This is why we are offering both public meetings and face-to-face meetings to ensure that people are informed every step of the way through the process. I understand that over 100 appointments have been made for the face-to face-sessions this coming Saturday and Monday. The EPA is also operating a hotline for residents who want more information.
Those are the facts of the matter. We have before us today a motion of no confidence in me. If honourable members determine that a minister agreeing that a process in place to communicate to residents was inadequate, the minister apologising for it and seeking to put in place a better one—if honourable members determine that deserves a motion of no confidence, well, so be it. But let everyone understand that if they do they will be—
The PRESIDENT: Order! Let the minister finish in peace and silence.
The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Let everyone understand that if they do support the motion they will be significantly devaluing the processes of this house and the esteem in which this Legislative Council should be held. If the council agrees with the motion of the Hon. Michelle Lensink then they will be setting a very low bar indeed, and the decisions of this august chamber will be treated with disdain by the community which would be a very great shame indeed.
The PRESIDENT: Are there any further speakers?
The PRESIDENT: Order!
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK ( 15:33 :30 ): I will be brief. I am amazed that, first of all, the Leader of the Government has not received the memo from the media staffers in the Premier's media unit. We are into mea culpa at the moment—not!—continuing to blame the opposition. However, then the minister repeated that, too: it is still our fault. When do these people take responsibility for their own behaviour? For days and days he has been grumpy and churlish—not just in this place, which we, unfortunately, have become accustomed to—to just about every media outlet known to mankind in the state.
He has got his figures wrong time and time again. I found out on 5 July about that figure and he did not know about it until several days later. He is the one with all the staff and he is the one with the agency; he should actually bother to keep himself abreast of his facts.
An honourable member: And a scientist as well!
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: A scientist. I thank all honourable members for their contributions. I think I have outlined the case in my initial statement. I look forward to the vote on this motion.