COMMENT

Stolen freedoms and a long, stony silence after failed Senate motion on Williamtown contamination

Freedom and the liberty of the individual. These were, arguably, the central themes of Liberal Senator James McGrath's maiden speech to parliament in 2014. 

"Freedom and liberty are not abstract concepts," Senator McGrath enthused to the chamber at the time. "You either have freedom or you are not free." 

So residents living around the Williamtown RAAF base could attest. Indeed, it's been a savage lesson for 750 households, unceremoniously stripped of their freedoms by the same organisation that was designated with defending them.  

The plume of per- and poly- fluoroalkyl [PFAS] contamination leaching from the RAAF base has stolen their right to buy and sell their properties, to live where they please. To swim in their dams and enjoy the yield from their vegetable gardens. 

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But the more subtle - and perhaps most significant - freedom lost is the ability to live without fear an agent in their environment could be endangering their health. 

After news of the contamination broke in late 2015, the expectation was that these freedoms would be swiftly - and rightly - restored. These hopes were buoyed by a visit to the region by Senator McGrath and Defence Minister Marise Payne last May. 

Senator McGrath, the head of the federal government's PFAS taskforce, declared he would find a “solution” to the crisis. 

But in a disgraceful failure of leadership, all that has followed has been deafening silence. Residents have been left to languish in unconscionable conditions, while Defence spending ballooned six per cent to $34.6 billion this financial year. 

The silence was not broken on Monday night, as a deadline passed for the government to respond to a Senate motion, demanding it clarify its position on compensation. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, who pushed the motion through with Labor’s support, described it as the “deepest insult”. 

Any belated compensation package offered by the Turnbull government now should not be viewed as an act of generosity. It would only restore the fundamental freedoms that all members of this first-world country should expect to enjoy. 

"My life has not been about the pursuit or gain of power but to confiscate power back from the government to free people," Senator McGrath said in his speech in 2014. 

The time has arrived for Senator McGrath to deliver on his words. 

Issue: 38,716.

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