The Head of the PR Unit (Or: Attack Dogs Pay Off, Well)

Agent Orange” was a defoliant deployed during the Vietnam War on a large scales so that the enemy could not use trees to hide from surveillance helicopters. It was manufactured by Monsanto, a US-based multinational chemical company. Monsanto seems to be the type of company everyone likes to hate. Lefties point to napalm and its more recent ventures into genetically modified food crops. However, to Vietnam veterans, it is Agent Orange that raises tempers. It is claimed that Monsanto knew that 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, the chemicals that make up Agent Orange contain high levels of dioxin, a very potent cancer-inducing agent.

As an internal memo at Monsanto stated, “For better or worse, we’re deeper into dioxin than anyone, though the public links them more to Dow … Three lawsuits (Nitro, Agent Orange, and Sturgeon) hold the key … If we win them all, there won’t be others. If we lose them all, Katy bar the door!” (The Dioxin War).

The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia waged a long struggle to highlight the deleterious effects of Agent Orange on many of its members. Monsanto also waged a vigorous campaign denying any ill effects. Eventually, public pressure on the federal government resulted in a royal commission into the effects of Agent Orange, in the early 1980s.

The details of the Agent Orange case have been reviewed widely elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, unlike the Vietnam veterans, Monsanto was able to hire the best lawyers money could buy. It assembled one of the most potent legal teams in Australian history. It turned to prominent legal firm, Clayton Utz, to provide a barrister to lead the team.

That person was Mr Barry O’Keefe, QC, who now (with nearly 30 years more experience) heads the Catholic Church’s PR unit for the royal commission, the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. The turning point for Monsanto came when Mr O’Keefe tore into a prominent biochemistry academic’s testimony, which had linked Agent Orange to soft tissue sarcoma.

As the website of a veteran’s group, W Company, notes in a review of the book “Agent Orange and its Associated Dioxin: An Assessment of a Controversy”, edited by Young and Reggioni, Mr O’Keefe wrote chapter seven of that book. It was entitled “Soft Tissue Sarcoma: Law, Science and Logic: An Australian Perspective”. W Company reports that, in that chapter, that, “Despite our rebuttals and the admission of errors by Australia’s Department of Veteran Affairs, Mr O’Keefe repeated the errors that appeared in the royal commission’s report – or rather his own errors as they originally appeared in the Monsanto submission.”

Monsanto was so pleased with Mr O’Keefe’s work for them that they sent him to the US to represent them at the “Agent Orange Settlement Fairness Hearings” in San Francisco on the 24th of August, 1984 before Justice Weinstein. The transcript mentions a submission by a Mr Monty Hollow, a lawyer and secretary of the Totally and Permanently Invalided Association of Victoria (TPI Victoria). Mr Hollow pointed out that he had been refused leave to appear before the Australian enquiry, and, “wanted Judge Weinstein to know.”

Mr O’Keefe also appeared in a Voyager disaster royal commission. The collision between the HMAS Voyager and the HMAS Melbourne resulted in many deaths. The government fought tooth and nail over compensation for the families of those who died. It took 30 years for a settlement to be reached. For those survivors who suffered mental and other injuries, the last claim was settled 45 years after the collision.

An interesting point. In his role as a judge, Mr O’Keefe has shown also that he can be very tough. He sentenced a murderer, Ms Katherine Knight, to be, “never released” from prison. This was the first time such a sentence had been passed on a woman in Australia. In June, 2006, Knight appealed the sentence but the sentence was upheld by a panel of three judges, which included Mr Peter McClellan, the chairman of the current royal commission.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who put his career on the line to force the Prime Minister to hold the royal commission. He described Mr O’Keefe’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council as, “a shield and smokescreen” for the Catholic Church (AAP, 14 December, 2012).

[Note on previous entry on remuneration: It has been revealed by Mr Scott Prasser, the executive director of the Australian Catholic University’s Public Policy Institute, that each commissioner will receive in excess of $1.2 million for their work with the commission over the three years plus, of course, expenses].

TOMORROW: More on Mr O’Keefe

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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