Agent Orange and British nuclear tests

On 19 August 1985 Cabinet considered the final report of the Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam. The Royal Commission had been set up in May 1983 under Justice Phillip Evatt and at times its relations with the government on issues such as costs, reporting times and research strategies had been somewhat strained. The final report found that, apart from the unresolved status of the anti-malarial drug Dapsone, all chemical agents used in Vietnam had been fully exonerated from causing ill-health for veterans; the higher mortality rate among veterans was due to stress, alcohol and tobacco. The report's recommendations included the tightening of handling procedures for chemicals, automatically allowing Vietnam veterans' benefit claims relating to circulatory issues and alcohol-induced diseases, and improved demobilisation and counselling procedures. Cabinet decided to table the report in Parliament, noting that a link between Agent Orange and veterans' health problems had not been established, but not making any immediate commitment to implementing specific recommendations.

On 2 July 1984 Cabinet decided to establish a Royal Commission to investigate British nuclear tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963, focusing in particular on the management of the tests, arrangements to exclude unauthorised people from the prohibited area, and radiological and other health physics standards and practices. The Royal Commission was chaired by Justice James McClelland, Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court and formerly a minister in the Whitlam government. The Royal Commission's report was received on 20 November 1985. The Department of Resources and Energy advised Cabinet in a memorandum two days later that the report should be tabled in Parliament as soon as possible to give privilege protection for possible defamation action against the Commonwealth, particularly in relation to comments about Sir Ernest Titterton. The memorandum said that the report was very critical of the Menzies government and in places it was couched in 'evocative' and 'derisive' terms. The report said that:

In taking it upon himself to embrace British interests as being synonymous with those of Australia, and to expose his country and people to the risk of radioactive contamination, Menzies was merely acting according to his well-exposed Anglophilian sentiments.

The report recommended an immediate clean-up of the test sites (funded by the United Kingdom), a right of compensation for all ex-servicemen, civilians and Aboriginal people affected by the tests, transfer of the onus of proof from the claimant to the Commonwealth, and compensation for the Aboriginal traditional owners of the area. Cabinet decided that the report would be tabled, without any substantive comment, on 5 December.

Selected documents

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018