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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 5438

Senator VAN (Victoria) (10:29): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Paid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies) Bill 2021, which has been placed in front of us today by Senator Keneally. I would like to start by commending Senator Keneally on her advocacy for this issue. Thank you very much, Senator.

When I read the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education's final report, the words that really hit me were that this was 'a hidden tragedy', because I don't think the topic of stillbirths can be described in any other way. This is not something that you hear talked about in the news, in the media or around the dinner table with friends and family, yet it affects thousands of Australians every year. In 2018, 2,789 babies died in the perinatal period; of those, three-quarters were stillbirths. Despite the numerous medical and technological advancements that we have achieved in recent times, the rate of stillbirths has remained the same for the last two decades. This truly is a hidden tragedy that is occurring within our country and one that is not widely discussed. As such, parents and families often suffer through this process alone. I know we did. Open and public discussion about the topic of stillbirths is vitally important. The more awareness we raise around this, the better society can support and assist those who are afflicted with the pain of going through a stillbirth pregnancy. The loss of a child of any age is unthinkable and often goes unspoken; however, it is important that we speak about it.

The Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education's final report outlines how many of our societal attitudes towards death underpin the silence and stigma surrounding stillbirth. Therefore it is important—for those who have suffered from a stillbirth, as well as those who may be afflicted by this in the future—that we talk about this. Open and honest discussions with family and friends can and will raise awareness around this issue and can only help those who suffer in silence. In our roles as senators for our various constituencies, if we do not speak about such important issues then they will remain hidden and unaddressed.

To go through such a tragedy at any stage of your life would be horrible, but to feel as though you're going through it alone would make it that much worse. This is why the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan is so important. Released in December last year, the plan provides a range of actions to reduce stillbirth in Australia. While this is a crucial first step, stillbirths will not stop happening overnight. The plan has a primary goal of reducing stillbirths by 20 per cent over five years. To achieve this, the plan aims to address five priority areas:

ensuring high quality stillbirth prevention and care

raising awareness and strengthening education

improving holistic bereavement care and community support following stillbirth

improving stillbirth reporting and data collection

prioritising stillbirth research.

With this plan in place, I'm hopeful that we can make some real progress in reducing the number of stillbirths occurring in Australia. This will improve the lives of thousands of Australians and is a worthy goal to pursue. It is important that we support Australian families, especially when they're doing it tough and going through all the emotions that come from suffering a stillbirth. The Morrison government is committed to this end.

This government understands that, in starting or raising a family, people are presented with a unique set of challenges and that many of these challenges impose on an individual's ability to participate effectively in the workforce. This is why the government has committed to supporting Australians in the workforce through pregnancy and parenthood and to improving workplace settings for employee parents and those who are expecting. Action taken by the government through the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Act 2020 ensured that all provisions related to unpaid parental leave in the Fair Work Act provide a clear and consistent minimum standard, with improved support for those employees who have experienced stillbirth, to recognise the grief and emotional trauma of such circumstances. While recognising that most employers are obviously supportive of their employees, particularly when their employees have suffered such a tragic loss, this act ensures that the entitlement to unpaid parental leave for a parent whose baby is stillborn is precisely as it would have been if their baby had lived. The legislation also ensures that parents of stillborn babies or children who died during the first 24 months of life can take compassionate leave while on unpaid parental leave. It also reduces the rigidity of parental leave for parents of babies born prematurely and newborns who require hospitalisation immediately following birth, providing an opportunity to effectively put their leave on hold and return to work until the baby is ready to go home.

In recognition of the suffering caused by stillbirths, the Morrison government has also amended the stillborn baby payment to provide increased financial support to families who lose a child through stillbirth or within the first year after birth. Since the beginning of 2021, a single higher payment of $3,601.81 has aligned the assistance available to families who experience a stillbirth, regardless of whether it's their first or a subsequent stillbirth, with the assistance available to families who lose a child after birth. This support will go a long way to supporting those who suffer from a stillbirth.

Currently before the Senate is the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. This is also an important bit of legislation. It will enable an employee to take compassionate leave if the employee or their spouse or de facto partner has a miscarriage. It is important that this bill be passed. Like stillbirths, the topic of miscarriages is often not widely discussed, and therefore parents and families often suffer in silence. This legislation, however, provides further evidence of the Morrison government's wide-ranging commitment to addressing workforce issues, regardless of whether these are front-page news or hidden tragedies such as stillbirths and miscarriages. We want to ensure that everyone, regardless of the situation, has access to the leave requirements they need to properly heal physically, emotionally and psychologically.

While the government legislates minimum conditions for compassionate leave, many employers offer more than this minimum. In fact, there are 60 large organisations in Australia, such as HSBC, Bunnings, Woolworths, and many others, who provide specific leave entitlements through their workplace policies and enterprise agreements, in addition to the minimum standards in the Fair Work Act, to employees who suffer a stillbirth. It is heartening to know that there are many employers out there who understand the emotional, psychological and physical impacts of pregnancy loss and provide a level of support to their employees beyond what is required. This is why advocacy around this issue is so important. The more awareness is spread, the more compassion we are likely to see. Careful consideration of these important issues is necessary. While ensuring that these issues are adequately addressed, it is important to also consider whether legislative change is the best vehicle to promote cooperation between employers and employees. As I've mentioned, there are a number of companies who are going above and beyond to support employees through the trauma of a stillbirth. This is something that, as a government, we want to encourage.

Currently, the Fair Work Act does not mandate conditions beyond minimums. This is a longstanding principle that has been in place since the establishment of the Fair Work Act. As it stands, the Fair Work Act promotes enterprise bargaining that is critical to productivity growth and cooperative workplaces. In this context, regulating employer paid parental leave would be a significant departure from this longstanding principle and would have the capacity to damage the spirit of cooperation between employers and employees and their willingness to bargain. We want employers and employees to work together on issues such as this to come to agreements that are mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

The Morrison government is currently considering non-legislative mechanisms which may be appropriate to effect change at the workplace level. This could include educational materials and the championing of best practice to prompt employers to think beyond their obligations under the minimum standards and review their parental leave policies to provide more support to parents of stillborn babies. As discussed earlier, this is a hidden tragedy occurring within our society. Many employers may not be aware of the number of Australians that this affects and therefore have not acted to address this issue within their businesses.

In concluding, I would again like to commend Senator Keneally for her work on this. As with the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, this is a bipartisan issue that the government wishes to remain bipartisan on. Helping those who have been dealt such a difficult hand goes beyond politics, and it should remain this way into the future. I commend the bill to the Senate.