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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27314

Mrs IRWIN (4:30 PM) —Mr Speaker, you would no doubt have noticed that I was absent from the House on the last two days of the previous sitting week. In what I hope has created a precedent, I was most grateful that the Chief Opposition Whip granted me what I would like to call grandparenting leave. On 26 February, my daughter Rebecca gave birth to my first grandchild—a healthy baby boy, Liam Geoffrey Hunt. Rebecca's husband, Chris, helped out for the first week after the new baby came home from hospital, but like many young couples with a mortgage to pay he needed to get back to his workplace.

The first few weeks after giving birth can be a difficult time for a new mother, and extended family support is often needed at this time. Grandmothers are usually the first to offer assistance and, from my own experience as a new mother, they have a critical role to play. So it did not surprise me to read of the findings of a study by a Finnish university that grandmothers do play a vital role in improving the chances of grandchildren surviving to adulthood and having children of their own. Deborah Smith, the science editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, described the findings as helping to solve the puzzle of why humans are rare among animals in living well beyond child-bearing age. She said:

They provide the first strong evidence for an explanation of the mystery known as the “grandmother hypothesis”—that life after menopause evolved because older woman can pass on their genes more effectively by helping raise their grandchildren, than by having more children themselves.

The grandmother hypothesis, developed by the University of Utah's Professor Kirsten Hawkes, observes that human babies are unusual because they cannot feed themselves at weaning age. We grandmothers—and I should on behalf of my own mother, Lois Welsh, add great-grandmothers—know that we are important, but here we have scientific proof that we are the saviours of the human species. That makes us responsible for the ageing population and the need for the Treasurer's intergenerational reports.

The Treasurer has found a way to solve the problem. Instead of allowing grandmothers to help out with the raising of children, he wants us to work until we drop. But, as the study published in the journal Nature observed: if a woman over 50 was still alive when her children were producing, they had more children and they produced them about 2½ years earlier than families without a grandmother. So, at a time when we are concerned about Australia's declining birthrate and the older age at which Australian mothers are having their first child, we might consider the role of grandmothers.

We should remember that we are increasing the pension age for women to 65 and that family friendly work practices are rarely extended to grandparents. The present trend for grandparents to move up the coast and leave their grandchildren behind cannot be helpful either. It is time we took stock of our family relationships and how important for society these relationships are. We need to see ourselves as members of society, not as units of the economy, and to see the importance of these relationships. Fourteen per cent of Australian mothers suffer significant postnatal depression and a further 30 per cent suffer milder distress. Extended family can provide vital support to children and allow more effective treatment for sufferers of postnatal depression. I am pleased to add that the family and community affairs committee's recent report on children of separated families called for a greater role for grandparents in the child's relationship. So, before calling on grandparents to work until they drop, the Treasurer should consider the vital role of grandparents. The survival of the species depends on them. Welcome to the world and to our family, Liam Geoffrey Hunt.