“60 years too late”: Yami Lester on gold card for Indigenous people victim of nuclear tests

Claudianna Blanco | Credit: National Indigenous Television (NITV)

Despite the government’s best efforts to remain tight-lipped about measures affecting Indigenous Australians, there were a number of leaks ahead of budget night.

On Monday afternoon, it transpired that the Veteran’s Affairs Minister, Dan Tehan, was preparing to announce that Aboriginal people who were near British nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s would finally receive a gold health card, which would mean access to improved health care, and most costs covered.

“The measure will provide Gold Cards to Indigenous people present at or near Maralinga, Emu Fields or the Monte Bello Islands at the time of the British Nuclear Tests in the 1950s or 1960s,” Mr Tehan told the ABC’s Q&A program.

The Government will also provide a gold card to cover the health care costs of the surviving participants of the British Nuclear Test program and veterans who served as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). The Government has allocated $133.1 million for this initiative to cover eligible veterans.

The announcement has been a long time coming for many Indigenous people and veterans alike, who have campaigned for decades to receive compensation. There are currently about 1800 surviving Australian veterans who were exposed during nuclear these nuclear tests.

Yankunytjatjara man Yami Lester, who was blinded by atomic fallout says the support comes “60 years too late”. “Most of our people have passed away. They were young ones then, now they’re older ones now, a few of them still living now today.”

Mr Lester believes the government is only doing it to improve their image. “I think they’re doing it just to look good, and they’re not looking good… At all. “Our people were sick, very sick. They were on the lands and they needed help. They’re doing it too late. They didn’t [do] compensation before, early, they didn’t do it.”

The sentiment was echoed by Karina Lester, Yami’s daughter, who has been actively fighting against proposals for nuclear waste dumps in South Australia. “Why now? This was recommended by the Royal Commission into the British nuclear tests in the 1980s. It’s too late for those who have passed, but I am pleased for those still alive.”

The South Australia’s Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) Chief Executive, Cheryl Axleby, told the ABC her organization welcomed the announcement, and explained many needed funds to pay for treatment for their direct and intergenerational health issues caused by the radiation. “It’s great to have the recognition, but it’s really about compensation as well,” she said.

However, Ms Axelby also questioned the timing of the announcement, pointing out that the government has saved itself a lot of money by delaying compensation.

Dr Liz Tynan, author of the book ‘Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story’, told NITV News recently “there has been some small compensation paid to the Traditional Owners (only a total of $13.5 million), but it is really more tokenistic than anything.

“[Over the years] service personnel have tried to get compensation with notable lack of success, as very little has been paid to them. My understanding is that legal avenues have been exhausted for them,” she said.

A decade ago, in 2007, Australian soldiers who served at nuclear sites were also unhappy with the gold medallion they received from the Federal government, which was sent out without ceremony or recognition. Many were anger at getting a medallion and not a medal, as this meant less health care entitlements.

Last year, an 83-year-old man lost his bid for compensation after having developed health complications associated to his time working at a remote nuclear test facility in South Australia.