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Monday, 30 August 2021
Page: 5445

Senator McCARTHY (Northern TerritoryDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (11:00): [by video link] by leave—A key issue raised by witnesses and submitters in relation to employment matters concerned leave entitlements for parents who experienced a stillbirth. We heard evidence from women who had been made redundant while recovering from a stillbirth. The first recommendation in the bipartisan report of the Senate select committee on stillbirths was to amend the Fair Work Act to ensure that legislative entitlements to paid parental leave are unambiguous in recognising and providing support for employees who have experienced stillbirth. The government agreed to this recommendation. However, in 2020 the government amended the Fair Work Act to extend unpaid parental leave to parents of stillborn babies, but this did not include paid leave. This bill will fully implement the committee's bipartisan recommendation and equalise paid parental leave entitlements for all parents.

The Commonwealth's parental leave pay already provides parents of a stillborn baby with the same leave entitlements as parents of a baby born live. However, in the private sector, without explicit entitlements for employees who have experienced a stillbirth, often it is a manager or direct supervisor making the significant decision as to whether parents of a stillborn baby can access paid parental leave. During the Senate select committee's hearings, we heard evidence about the difficulties and inconsistencies experienced by employees in the private sector when seeking access to paid parental leave after stillbirth. Some of those stories were truly horrifying. In one case, a mother gave evidence to the committee that she was forced to return to work by her manager just 11 days after her baby's stillbirth. Parents of a stillborn child have to deal with the physical trauma as well as the emotional. Like any mother of a new baby, she must recover from the birth, and this includes the usual experiences for women after birth, such as lactation, hormone fluctuation, and the healing of any incisions or surgery the birth may have required.

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that mothers who returned to work for financial reasons following a stillbirth had a productivity rate of just 26 per cent of their normal rate after 30 days. This was supported by evidence given to the Senate inquiry, such as that from one mother, who told us:

... I now find myself mentally unprepared to re-join the workforce in the immediate future due to a lack of drive and mental capacity to be able to fulfil work obligations. Re-joining the workforce too soon may result [in] a phenomenon known as presenteeism, where an employee is physically present, but mentally absent. Further, the prolonged period of remaining at home without an active income will eventuate in financial burden, and potentially a strain on the relationships within the household.

The ambiguity in existing company parental leave policies is most likely through oversight or misunderstanding of stillbirth rather than an ill intent, but there is no misunderstanding the traumatic and long-term impacts that a forced return to work after such a tragedy can have on a family. This bill will fully implement the committee's bipartisan recommendations and equalise paid parental leave entitlements for all parents.

In 2018, Stillbirth Foundation Australia established a registry of private sector employers that provide specific paid leave provisions in their employee agreements for parents of stillborn babies. The registry now includes 51 businesses, covering nearly 800,000 employees, including Bunnings, Woolworths, Cricket Australia, Optus, Wesfarmers, Telstra, PwC and Origin Energy. I acknowledge these companies and the many more that have set up or are looking to establish these paid leave provisions, but the entitlement can still vary widely from company to company. This legislation will ensure that employees can access the same entitlement to employee paid parental leave regardless of whether the pregnancy ended in a stillbirth or with a live birth and regardless of whether the entitlement is legislative or one arising under an industrial instrument. It makes economic sense for a company to help parents recover from their baby's birth and death. The move to introduce PPL for the parents of stillborn babies would not cost companies anything additional, given that they have already made provision for paid parental leave for applicants.

According to the Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth, the economic impact of stillbirth is significant and far reaching and extends further than just a direct cost to the healthcare sector. One important area in which major employer groups might see benefits from targeted stillbirth research is in the impact of pregnancy loss on women and their families in terms of time off work, altered work performance and other employment-related impacts. Improving bereavement care and recovery after stillbirth has potential beneficial spin-offs for employers and the broader economy, and this could encourage investment from the corporate sector.

As I said, the work of the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education continues to make a very real difference. Our report called for a national stillbirth action plan to reduce the rate of stillbirth, and I was pleased to see the government take up our recommendation and commit funding towards a 10-year national stillbirth action and implementation plan in December 2020.

I'd also like to note the development of the Safer Baby Bundle. This evidence based package aims to reduce risk factors for stillbirth and improve clinical management of pregnant women who may be at increased risk of stillbirth. The Safer Baby Bundle is currently being implemented in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria and will be extended to all states and territories. It's jointly funded through a National Health and Medical Research Council partnership project and the Medical Research Future Fund. The evidence based components of the Safer Baby Bundle are: smoking cessation support, improving awareness and management of women with decreased foetal movements, improving detection and management of impaired foetal growth, provision of maternal safe sleeping advice and improving decision-making around timing of birth for women with risk factors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widescale changes in the way antenatal care is provided and has resulted in some delays in implementing the SBB. Despite these challenges, there are currently 82 maternity services involved in varying stages of implementation across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, accounting for approximately half of all births in these states. I'm informed that all other jurisdictions are planning to implement the SBB over the coming year, which is very welcome news.

The Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education's report examined the risk factors, which related not only to individual maternal health factors but also to issues such as geographical location and race. Around 33 per cent of all stillbirths in Australia happen to women who live in regional and remote areas of our country. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data, the further women are from a major city, the higher the rate of stillbirth, and the rate for First Nations women is double that. There are higher stillbirth rates amongst culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia, so our women from non-English-speaking backgrounds suffer a great deal in silence.

There is a clear need to improve the cultural protocols around dealing with families who have suffered stillbirth The committee heard very disturbing evidence about six stillborn babies of Indigenous descent who remained in a morgue at the Katherine hospital for a number of years, six years in some cases. Evidence was presented in relation to the difficulty of contacting families who lived in very remote communities and the lack of resources available for locating and working with bereaved families. It was noted that there may also be financial issues. Since the report was handed down, I have heard of similar situations with babies in morgues long term in other locations around Australia.

While I'm heartened to see action on so many fronts in terms of stillbirth prevention, the fates of these babies still disturbs me deeply. Every preventable stillbirth is a tragic outcome of pregnancy. Stillbirths still affect more than 2,000 Australian families each year. For too long there has been a culture of silence around stillbirth, regarded as a hidden tragedy with personal, social and financial consequences. I am proud that the work of the Senate select committee has gone a long way to breaking that silence. There have been significant commitments made to reducing the rates of stillbirth and the impact it has on our families and the wider Australian community.

I believe the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education demonstrated how this parliament can work in a collegiate and bipartisan manner to drive positive change. In the words of Senator Jim Molan, one of my colleagues on the Senate committee, on the occasion of the tabling of the report, 'This is how parliament should work.' This was endorsed at the time by committee member Senator Rice, who said, 'It is truly representative of the Senate working at its best.'

This legislation encompasses the very first recommendation of the select committee and corrects the oversight in the government's recent legislation introducing unpaid parental leave for the parents of stillborn babies. I urge senators to support Senator Keneally, Senator Bilyk and me in the work that still needs to be done here to continue the work of the committee as a whole and support this bill introducing much needed paid parental leave for the parents of stillborn babies. They have suffered enough, and worrying about their next pay packet should not play a part in their grief. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.