Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s (1975-1983) cabinet resisted growing calls throughout 1980 for a judicial inquiry into the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans and their children because it would have put the government in an “impossible position”, secret cabinet documents show.
By Emma Rodgers at ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News
Around 41,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972, the same time the US was using Agent Orange to kill thick jungle cover.
Papers released by the National Archives today detail the deliberations of the cabinet as it struggled with how to investigate whether exposure to Agent Orange was responsible for health problems in veterans and deformities in their children.
The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia had been formed to pursue compensation and was pushing hard for a judicial inquiry.
Veterans affairs minister Evan Adermann announced on January 7 that the government would fund an epidemiological study into the matter; a few days later in a submission to cabinet, he noted that widespread “dramatic” claims in the media were leading to increased inquiries to his department.
“I felt that, despite willingness on my part, and my department, to search out a possible relationship between Agent Orange and disabilities, there was no visible action on our part demonstrating this,” he wrote of his decision to establish the study.
“In light of the lack of progress in the US in establishing an relationship between human disorders and contact with Agent Orange, it would be too much to expect spectacular results from the projected study in Australia.
“However it is necessary to examine the Australian scene as thoroughly and scientifically as practicable, even though this may be a long and costly task.”
But as the year wore on, the government was forced to consider the VVAA’s demand that a judicial inquiry be held.
The VVAA was against the epidemiological study because it felt it would take too long.
The government weighed up its options, which included doing nothing, relying on the outcomes of studies being undertaken in the US, allowing the judicial inquiry, or proceeding with the epidemiological study.
Despite the fact it was becoming apparent the study would be lengthy and cost more than expected, cabinet rejected the idea of a judicial inquiry because it would place the government in an “impossible position”.
This was because the association wanted the department to rebut the presumption that Agent Orange was the cause of various symptoms and diseases.
“The concept of a rebuttable presumption requires “proving the negative,” Mr Adermann advised the cabinet.
“This is not possible. It cannot be proved that a causal relationship between the use of herbicides in Vietnam and each and every condition listed in the VVVAA’s proposition does not exist – proof of such negative association is not medically possible in the circumstances.”
Although the government resisted the VVA’s demands, a royal commission was eventually established in 1983.
However in 1985 the commission found no significant link between and Agent Orange and health problems.
Since then many studies have been conducted that have established links between the defoliant and various diseases such as cancer and heart disease.