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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 5442

Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (10:47): [by video link] In rising to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Paid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies) Bill 2021, I want to begin by thanking the parents who told their brave stories at the inquiry. It's been a journey for everybody. Some parents had very, very recently had their little person born still, and for them to come forward and tell their brave stories was of great significance and obviously helped us to write our report. I also want to thank Kristina Keneally for bringing up this topic. Although I am the parent of a stillborn child, it's not a topic that I thought would get any resonance during the time I've been in the Senate. So I'm really grateful to Senator Keneally for bringing this forward, which enabled us to carry out the committee work that we did. I also thank the other members of the Senate committee. I thank each and every one of you for the respect, care and dignity you gave to parents of stillborn babies.

When my first child Timothy was born still back in 1983, the hospital staff suggested they would take him away immediately. I refused, and I'm really glad I did. We held on to our baby, we bathed him, we dressed him and we said goodbye to him and then we could let him go. I can't say we were ready, but we let him go at a time that was of our calling, not of the hospital's calling. Since I gave birth to our beautiful boy Timothy, a much greater understanding has developed of the importance of parents having time with their stillborn babies as part of the grieving process. But, while some aspects of our approach to supporting parents of stillborn babies have improved substantially, there are others, I'm afraid to say, that are still stuck firmly in the Dark Ages.

One approach to paid parental leave seems to follow an attitude that, if you don't have a live baby, you're not a parent. Well, take it from me, we are. Parents of stillborn babies are still parents and deserve to be treated as such. A mother who experiences stillbirth needs time to recover from the birth, not just mentally but physically. All parents need time to be with their babies, to hold them and to be able to say a proper goodbye. They need time to make funeral arrangements and autopsy arrangements should they choose to have an autopsy. They need time to seek support and comfort from family, friends, loved ones and mental health professionals. They need time to provide support to their own family and their stillborn baby's living siblings, if they have them. Most of all, they need time to grieve. For most parents, the grief of stillbirth will never leave them, but, given the right amount of time and support, a parent can at least come to terms with their grief and not have it dominate their life. It's often misunderstood how traumatic a stillbirth is. It can be just as distressing for a parent as the death of an infant or another child. So the amount of time that is needed to grieve is substantial.

The Fair Work Amendment (Improving Paid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies) Bill 2021 addresses an issue that arose from the Senate inquiry into stillbirth, which concluded almost three years ago. The Senate inquiry's report noted that, according to the International Labour Organization, compulsory leave of six weeks should be provided to all women in the event of a stillborn child as a health related measure. But, currently, only 12 of 170 countries with maternity benefit policies include any specific provision for stillbirth related leave. Unfortunately, a number of employers have unclear policies on parental leave for parents who have experienced stillbirth, and often decisions on when an employee returns are made by middle managers, usually with little understanding of the impact of stillbirth.

The first recommendation of the Senate inquiry's report was to ensure legislative entitlements for employees who experienced stillbirth. Despite the government agreeing to this recommendation, they extended only unpaid leave for employees who have experienced stillbirth. While any extension of leave provision for parents of stillborn babies is welcome, extending only unpaid leave does not go nearly far enough. It does, thankfully, mean that employees can have some peace of mind knowing that it will not cost them their job if they refuse to return to work too soon. But, under the current arrangements, financial pressure will compel many workers to return to work before they are ready. For employees who return to work too soon following a stillbirth, it can't help but delay their emotional recovery. The damage this could do to an employee's emotional wellbeing will ultimately cost that workplace, too.

A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers released in 2016 estimated that the direct and indirect costs of stillbirth would total $681.4 million in the five-year period from 2016 to 2020. Of that cost, $278.4 million, or just over 40 per cent, would be in absenteeism and presenteeism. In cases where a bereaved mother returns to work for financial reasons following a stillbirth, the PwC study found that she maintains 26 per cent of the normal workplace productivity 30 days after her return. I think it's worth reflecting on this statistic. It makes you think about what kind of emotional trauma someone must be going through if they can only produce a quarter of their normal output. Is having to work through this trauma delaying the mother's ability to recover? Yes, it is. What flow-on effect is that having on the productivity and the morale of work colleagues? But, if parents don't return to work, the alternative may be to add more financial stress on top of funeral expenses and possibly also hospital expenses. Mr Troy Wright from the Community and Public Sector Union's New South Wales branch highlighted to the Senate inquiry the disparity between leave entitlements and the return to work. He said:

The Fair Work Act makes provision for two days of compassionate leave, which parents can access in the event of a stillbirth. Employment agreements may provide further leave entitlements not specifically related to stillbirth, but often these are not enough for parents to recover.

A submission to the inquiry from parents Tim and Leanne Smith explained how long recovery can take. Leanne wrote:

I was not a functioning member of society or the workforce for at least 6 months. I believe that people need to be given sufficient time away from the workforce in the first instance to deal with the emotional and physical turmoil.

Another submission, from Annette Kacela and Christopher Lobo, highlighted the vast differences between workplaces in their approach to supporting employees. Annette wrote:

Following the stillbirth of our son Thomas, neither Christopher nor I were capable of immediately returning to work due to the sheer devastation, grief and crippling mental effects. We have since returned to our respective employers to different departments. Christopher's employer granted him paid leave for 2 months who was exceptionally supportive of the circumstances and even contacted him on multiple occasions to ensure his and our family's wellbeing. My employer dealt with Thomas's passing in stark contrast, I was on leave for four months where I was required to use all of my personal and annual leave entitlements which I had been accumulating in preparation for Thomas live birth, the remainder of the time was un-paid.

…   …   …

The non-supportive work culture demonstrated by my employer compounded the situation we were already in. I was also requested to complete my 'on-call' shifts over the Christmas period that I had to decline, this gesture clearly demonstrated the lack of awareness …

Among the parents giving evidence to the inquiry, the shortest period of time given to them before they were required to return to work was 11 days. After 11 days this poor woman had to return to work. I can only imagine what sort of trauma that caused.

I am pleased to find out that a number of employers have taken it upon themselves to make specific provisions of paid leave entitlements for stillbirth. There's a list that the Stillbirth Foundation Australia maintains, and so far there are 51 businesses on the list, covering close to 800,000 employees. I'd love to be able to name them all in this speech and thank them individually, but I simply can't in the time I have.

I know there is a time limit for this speech, and I know that Senator McCarthy is back online and would like to continue her speech. As she is the chair of the committee, I think it's only fair that I give the rest of the time to Senator McCarthy. I just want to say this: I commend Senator McCarthy—so much—for her very capable chairing of the committee, because, as I said earlier, it was a very sensitive and, at times, a very emotional inquiry. It's a tragedy that is so shocking. A stillbirth is so painful that you never fully recover from it, even several decades later. Last night, when I was thinking about this speech, I was crying. I don't say that to garner support from people; I say it so that people understand that, 38 years later, that grief is still real. Yes, my life has gone on. Yes, we've managed to go on and have other children. Not everybody is that lucky, of course. I will say this: if there's been something positive that's come out of our experience, it's our appreciation for and understanding of the deep, profound grief that is still confronting so many families today—six families a day in Australia—and what we need to do to help them through it. It's a shared experience that I believe has brought me, Senator Keneally, Senator McCarthy and other colleagues closer together. I would also like to quickly acknowledge and thank the shadow minister for industrial relations, Mr Tony Burke, for his work on this bill and for his advocacy for stillbirth leave more generally.

I've spoken at length about the impact of stillbirths on parents, because that's what this bill addresses, but our colleague Chris Bowen's mother suffered a stillbirth and that's an important reminder to people. It's wonderful to have so many strong advocates for action on stillbirth in both the House and the Senate. We're starting to break that silence. We've made significant progress on the issue over the past few years, and I hope that with this bill we can make even more. I commend the bill to the Senate.