Monday, 9 November 2020
Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to express my party's support for the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020 before the House right now. This legislation amending the Minimum Employment Standards within the Fair Work Act to provide equal, unpaid parental leave entitlements to parents who experience stillbirth is long overdue and will make a significant difference.
It's difficult and it's painful to imagine the grief of parents who have this terrible experience. Sadly, it's all too often a tragedy suffered in silence, and that's why I stand in admiration of all those who've campaigned tirelessly on this issue. The legislation before us is the result of many years of hard-fought advocacy led by the Stillbirth Foundation and other organisations alongside parents who have suffered stillbirth as well as many MPs across the political spectrum who have championed this issue. The Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, chaired by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, was the first national inquiry to report on the impact of stillbirth on Australian families and the economy.
Six babies a day are stillborn in Australia, a number significantly higher than other comparable countries like New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Further, while the rate of stillbirth in other countries has dropped over the last 20 years, in Australia it's essentially remained the same. There were 2,173 stillbirths in 2017; that means every year over 2,000 families experience the trauma of stillbirth. For women from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, the rate is double that of other Australian women. I will say that again—we are in NAIDOC week, so let's not lose this point: for women from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, the rate is double that of other Australian women. Women from non-English speaking backgrounds also experience higher rates of stillbirth, and we know that perinatal mortality rates follow disadvantage.
While there's still much that is unknown about stillbirth, with a paucity of data and research as to why stillbirth occurs, we do know the impact on the parents and on the families who suffer this tragedy, mostly in silence. Support, as always, is essential to assist parents and families working their way through their grief in the way that will work best for them. For many parents, going back to work after experiencing stillbirth is extremely difficult. Having to go back before they are ready can be really detrimental to their personal health, to their wellbeing and to their productivity when they are at work. It may ultimately then cost them their job, an outcome that helps no-one. Employees who return to work too early after a stillbirth will be prone to absenteeism and presenteeism. One study found the mother of a stillborn baby who returns to work too early will only be performing at 26 per cent of her normal rate of productivity in 30 days, so the early return before someone's ready is in no-one's interest.
The Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education investigated the current legislative provisions relating to parental leave. Evidence was received from parents, who provided compelling testimony about their experiences of having been recalled to work before they were ready. Although the current minimum standard is a guaranteed six weeks of unpaid parental leave in the event of stillbirth, if a stillbirth occurs before unpaid parental leave has commenced, an employer can request the employee to return to work at any time. One witness gave evidence that her employer forced her to return to work just 11 days after she experienced a stillbirth.
The changes enabled by this legislation will give effect to part of the first recommendation of the Senate select committee, which suggested the Australian government reviews and amends the Fair Work Act and its provisions relating to stillbirth in the National Employment Standards. This is addressed in schedule 1 of the bill, which will have the effect of equalising unpaid parental leave entitlements for families of stillborn babies. The bill before us also introduces other welcome flexibility measures to the minimum standards for unpaid parental leave that are contained within the Fair Work Act and the National Employment Standards. The bill provides that, where a baby remains in hospital or is hospitalised immediately following birth, the employer and the employee can agree to the employee returning to work while the baby is still in hospital and recommencing their unpaid parental leave when the baby is discharged. That's a sensible amendment that will allow parents who want to use it a way to maximise their time with their baby when the child is able to be brought home from hospital.
Sadly, there are many circumstances where this situation may arise, but it's particularly relevant to babies who are born premature and who spend several months in hospital following birth. Currently, parents in this situation would have to use up their unpaid parental leave entitlements and, therefore, have less time to spend with the child at home. The bill also allows employees who are eligible to take unpaid parental leave to take up to 30 days of their 12-month entitlement to unpaid parental leave in a flexible way. This means employees will be able to take flexible unpaid parental leave, including on a single day at a time basis within 24 months of the birth or adoption of a child. These amendments to the Fair Work Act align it with recent changes to the Paid Parental Leave Act made by the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Act 2020. This amendment will allow parents to transition back to work in a way that suits their individual needs and is a positive change.
In summary, the bill will make a significant difference to Australian families, particularly those parents and families who experience stillbirth—six families a day. However—and as my second reading amendment, which I will move in a moment, indicates—while this bill makes a difference in respect to unpaid parental leave, it only partly addresses the bipartisan recommendation to the Senate select committee on stillbirth. The committee recommended that laws be changed to ensure that paid parental leave is provided to parents of stillborn babies, regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector. So, while the government's changes on unpaid parental leave are welcome and positive, there is still unfinished business for parents of stillborn babies in relation to guaranteed equal access to parental leave.
I want to congratulate all the senators who were part of the Senate select committee. We wouldn't be here today were it not for their work, and I've had many conversations over the years on this issue with Senators McCarthy, Keneally and Bilyk. I thank all those organisations who have worked tirelessly to get to where we are today. There's more work to do to ensure we can prevent stillbirth and save thousands of families every year the grief of those who have experienced stillbirth.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to all those parents who have shared their sad and very personal stories of stillbirth, including parliamentarians in this place. For many people, for very understandable reasons, it's easier to keep these stories private but, in sharing their stories, they have got us to a point where they will now be helping many, many other families because of the changes that the parliament's dealing with today. Their decision to speak out on this all-too-silent problem has got us to where we are today, and I want to thank them and acknowledge them. I move the second reading amendment which has been circulated in my name:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bills a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that the Government has only partially responded to the first recommendation of the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, and has not responded to the substantial issue of equal access to paid parental leave for all parents;
(2) further notes that until parents of stillborn babies are guaranteed access to paid parental leave, many will be forced to return to work in exceptionally short time frames, in some cases just days after giving birth to a stillborn baby; and
(3) calls on the Government to fully implement the first recommendation of the bipartisan Senate Committee and ensure equal access to paid parental leave for all parents".
I rise to speak in support of the amendments contained in the substantive bill, Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents Of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020, today. They will better support parents who experience the absolute tragedy that is stillbirth and infant death. Heartbreakingly, as the previous member pointed out, six babies are stillborn every day in Australia, making it the most common form of child mortality. I cannot even begin, as most members in this place, to imagine the profound pain that parents and families experience at the loss of a child through stillbirth and infant death. I want to start my remarks this morning by extending my support and comfort, whatever we can provide, to every couple and family in their own electorate who has gone through this kind of tragedy and is working through that grief.
Parents affected by these tragedies must be supported in every single way that we can, with bereavement payments in particular to take time off to grieve and to be with their loved ones. This is such an important part of what is an incredibly difficult process. I cannot speak from personal experience in this regard, as other MPs have, but I have spoken previously in the House about my journey and my wife's journey when it came to fertility, what was involved in that and the grief that was involved in that. Too often couples do just try and push through and not talk about it, to simply continue on. If there is a reflection that you could make, it would be that it is important for couples and families to step back and take some time to deal with these things together as a family and to process through what is a very, very natural feeling of grief when these things occur.
It is incumbent on all of us in this place, and certainly incumbent on the government, to commit all they can to support parents going through that process. It is why, following the recommendations of the Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, the government is now going to establish the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan. They've called on government agencies, advocacy groups and members of the public to submit their recommendations and personal experiences to help formulate this plan and to better support parents in the future. I look forward, as I'm sure other members of the chamber do, to being a part of the process that shapes that National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan for Australian families.
The Fair Work Act 2009, which we're looking to amend with this bill today, does not go far enough to support families who experience stillbirth and infant death. The unpaid parental leave entitlements in this situation are unclear and rigid at a time of absolute extreme grief and heartbreak, when they need to be focused on themselves and their family. The current framework simply adds further stress to parents. The amendments contained in this bill will guarantee 12 months of unpaid leave for all eligible new parents, including those who have experienced stillbirth and infant death. Under the current legislation, parents of children who are stillborn or who died during the first 24 months of life can be directed by their employers to return to work from unpaid parental leave early, with just six weeks notice, or employers can completely cancel any upcoming parental leave that they had planned. Most employers are doing the right thing, and I want to recognise that in this place, but I think that although most employers would be doing the right thing, it's very important for these families to know that they have that certainty there so that they're not worrying about this when they're going through a particularly difficult time and so that they don't feel the need to have to negotiate with an employer at a time when their mind is clearly elsewhere. They will know that it is simply there as a requirement.
You cannot—and I'm sure all members of this House would find it unacceptable—force parents who have not yet come to terms with their grief when something like this happens back into the workplace. Their mental health, their relationships and their overall wellbeing must be put first, and this government puts them first. The amendments contained in this substantive bill will remove the ability for employers to issue such directions, compelling them back to work in that 12-month period completely. It will ensure the parents of stillborn babies have access to the same unpaid parental leave entitlement as any other parent. Treating them on that same level is very, very important to them. Additionally, parents on unpaid parental leave who go through stillbirth or infant death will have access to compassionate leave following this horrific experience.
Further amendments contained in this bill—and I think this is particularly important—will permit flexible arrangements to be made between parents and their employers if their child is immediately hospitalised following birth. These arrangements will allow an employee to pause their unpaid parental leave so that they can go back to work, if they choose to do so, while their child is in hospital. Then of course they can resume their unpaid parental leave when their baby goes home. Why is this important? It's because of the practicalities of situations like this. I can only imagine the pain of having your child hospitalised so soon after birth for an extended period of time. But the reality of this kind of situation that families find themselves in is that you have not only the horrible situation of your child being in hospital, and the stress that comes with that, but also the added financial pressure of hospital fees and other costs that can add to and compound this situation. This is simply about flexibility. Some parents want to continue their leave, and that leave will enable them to be with their child full time in the hospital. But other parents will make the choice to use this flexibility to earn an income while their child receives treatment in hospital. There is no right or wrong way to deal with a situation where your child is in hospital for an extended period of time, and families have to be enabled to make the choice that best fits their family. At the end of the day, the people who know their family and their family's situation the best are those families, not the government, and it's not up to us to constrain their options. We should be making this as flexible and as stress-free as possible.
As I've said, many workplaces go above and beyond to support their employees who experience stillbirth and infant death. In acknowledging them, I want to encourage those employers who offer leave and entitlements that go beyond this minimum safety net to continue to provide the support which is so, so important to Australian families.
The amendments of the Fair Work Act in this substantive bill work together with the amendments to the social services legislation that I've spoken about previously in the House, and those amendments will remove the discrepancy in the rates of stillborn baby payments for first and subsequent stillborn children and align the stillborn baby payment with the rates payable to families who experience an infant death. Changing these payments is important. Of course we recognise that all the money in the world, frankly, could not numb the pain of this horrible experience. But at least the leave payments, combined with the guaranteed unpaid leave in these amendments, give families the opportunity to take the time to grieve and process their loss together and to work on their relationships coming out of it.
This package of bills—this one and the payments one—is a very important improvement to how we deal with and, more importantly, how we support families who experience stillbirth or early infant loss. It is so important to the families of Australia. I know, because I've had many, many conversations with him about it, that the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is personally dedicated to extending and enhancing support for parents who experience this kind of tragedy, and his work and Minister Ruston's work have been important in bringing these bills to fruition, so I really want to commend them for that work.
I obviously commend the amendments contained in this substantive bill to the House. I know they will assist families and parents in the Ryan electorate who experience the heartbreak of stillbirth and infant death. I want them to know that we support them and we care for them, and that, as a member of the government—as I'm sure other members in this House will say as well—I won't stop fighting to ensure that they have even more support and as much support as we can possibly provide to these families.
I rise to associate myself very briefly with the remarks of my friend the shadow minister for industrial relations, the member for Watson, and with the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020.
We all understand in this House, I'm sure, that no amount of leave and no payment will make grief go away. It never will. But the important thing that this bill achieves, and which the other omnibus bill achieved in the equation of payments, is that it recognises that this is real grief—that a stillbirth is a death to be grieved. It is exactly equal in the amount of grief to any other death in any other circumstance. That is what this bill recognises, that's what this House must recognise and that's what every Australian must recognise, because this has not been the case. The difference between government treatment of stillbirth and treatment of deaths after a breath has been taken reflects societal views that, somehow, this wasn't real—that this was not a real grief. It must be remedied, and this bill remedies it.
This bill has been inspired, as other speakers have said, by the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education. I thank Senator Keneally, who instigated it; Senator McCarthy, who chaired it; and Senator Bilyk, who participated with senators from the other side—particularly Senator Molan, who shared his personal experiences. They heard from grieving families about these inequities, and this was important work.
Previously, I shared my experience in this field. I am one of four brothers, only two of us still alive. My mother went to hospital four times to give birth and only came home with a baby twice. She feels, and felt, that her grief wasn't recognised by the system. And she was right; it was not. I'm not going to share with the House all the details, but she was told by doctors that there was nothing to grieve, that there had been no birth and that she could have more children.
When I shared this story, I thought, 'Well, this happened a long time ago'—many decades ago in my mum's case. But I was struck by people who contacted me to say, 'I feel exactly the same way, and the stillbirth in my family occurred just a few years ago in Australia.' Medical professionals, who should know better, didn't recognise the grief. Employers told grieving mothers—and not just mothers but also fathers, siblings and grandparents—to get over it and move on: 'Get back to work; you can have more children later'. That's all completely beside the point. My point is that in partially equating the leave, as the other bill did in equating the payments, this bill recognises that real grief and tells the grieving mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents that they are understood. Their grief is understood and is something to be respected; the lost little life is to be mourned.
Of course, what we ultimately hope for is that there is less need for grieving—that we actually reduce the amount of stillbirth in Australia. It has been stubbornly high for 20 years; it's higher than in comparable countries and is particularly high among our First Nations. One of the things we need to deal with is birthing on country, to support and respect birthing on country. I'm not saying that's a panacea, but it's among the many initiatives that can get these rates down.
The Senate inquiry recommended a national stillbirth plan to reduce the stillbirth rate by 20 per cent. Of course we want to see it at zero, but let's at least have the objective of reducing it by 20 per cent. Six stillbirths occur in Australia every day, which is more than the road toll and roughly analogous with the national suicide toll, both of which have achieved plenty of attention from governments over the last few decades. Stillbirth has not. We know that if we don't aim to reduce stillbirth rates then we simply won't. So it's good that now we have a draft action plan. The Labor Party has provided feedback, and we look forward to seeing the final plan and, importantly, to seeing it funded in future budgets. Stillbirth rates must come down in Australia if we are really serious about reducing the grief of so many of our fellow Australians.
It's grief that stays with you forever. My mum turns 83 in a couple of weeks and she still grieves for her two sons every day, all these years later, as our whole family does, as every family that's been touched by stillbirth does. Those families who have been touched by stillbirth need to know that this House stands as one with them in recognising that their grief is real and it is very, very deep. We hope that this recognition of that grief goes some small way to assuring those families that they are understood in this parliament.
I'd like to associate with the comments made by the member for McMahon and thank him for sharing those very deeply moving comments. So many women across Australia and around the world, so many parents and so many families, have been affected by this condition. There are stories that we could all share, I'm sure, but it's very significant that he shared these very personal statements with us here today. It is also pertinent that this bill is being debated this week because this week is PANDA Week. No, we're not talking about cute pandas from China; this is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Action Week. I would like to acknowledge the great work of PANDA in this very, very important area, and also to congratulate the chair of PANDA, Nicole Batagol, on being elected this week to the Stonnington council, which is in my electorate of Higgins. I look forward to working with Stonnington council and Nicole on different issues of advocacy, particularly for issues regarding women and supporting them in their time of need.
PANDA Week is a week across Australia to recognise the pain and suffering and difficulties women and families face around the birth of a child, whether that child be a live birth or a stillbirth. I'd like to make recognition of the comments made by the member for McMahon about recognition of stillbirth. I would like to declare, as a paediatrician who's worked for many years with families in their time of grief and loss, that it is not until you are actually personally affected, or know somebody who is personally affected, that it becomes much easier to understand the loss that comes from stillbirth. That is because the opportunity to see and touch and experience the birth of a child is a very transformative moment in the life of a mother and the family and those that are expecting this birth. But in a stillbirth that opportunity is snatched.
It wasn't until I experienced a stillbirth through a very close personal friend that I understood that the loss of a stillbirth is the loss of ongoing opportunity. It was about 15 years ago. My husband and I were sharing a Bastille night celebration with a couple. The woman, who was a dear friend, was heavily pregnant—28 weeks pregnant—with twins. On that night, as two couples, we were sharing the fact that they would also become parents of four children. My husband and I have four children—two boys and two girls—and this couple already had two girls and they were about to have two boys. We were celebrating the fact that she was 28 weeks pregnant with twin boys and her life was about to transform. That night she went into labour and she lost first one twin and then the second twin to twin-to-twin transfusion, which is where one child has the blood supply and the other child is starved from the blood supply. I remember the shock and horror of that night and the terrible grief that that family was obviously going through but also the whole school community was going through, because we'd all been excited about the birth of her twins. But the pain didn't just stop in those days and weeks and months that followed for her and for the community. Every year you would think about the absence of the opportunities of those boys and what they might have grown into. That grief is something that is carried by that family, by that mother, by that father, by those siblings for the rest of their lives.
I've heard so many stories over time of that happening many decades ago or many years ago, but it does continue today. That is why a bill like this is so incredibly important; it recognises the pain and suffering and the loss of opportunity that a family feels when a stillbirth does occur. So I'm very proud to be part of a government that understands the requirement for an update to a bill and important amendments that are going to be passed. Once this bill is passed, it will help to deal with the pain and suffering in those difficult days, weeks, months and years that occur after a stillbirth.
The Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020 will provide clear and consistent minimum standards of support for parents, making it easier both for the employer and for employees to understand their obligations. The bill, born out of the report of the Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, will amend the unpaid parental leave provisions and complement the government-funded paid parental leave pay changes. Being provided with the same entitlements of unpaid parental leave as they would have if their baby had survived will be a real reassurance for grieving parents. The changes mean that employers cannot recall parents to work. Can you imagine if you've just been through delivery of a stillbirth? It's a time when you need to be with your family, your friends, your supporters. It's a time to be together, with those who love you and whom you love, not only to potentially grieve but also to arrange funerals.
This bill also encourages employees and employers to work together, depending on certain needs and circumstances of the family. These amendments to the bill will allow parents of premature babies and newborns who require hospitalisation immediately following the birth to pause their unpaid parental leave until the child is at home, where they are able to resume their leave. This is a very pragmatic support measure, and I very much welcome this aspect of the bill. In response to the report of the 2018 Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education, the Morrison government agreed in principle to all recommendations made by the committee, including agreeing to the development of a national stillbirth action plan to reduce the rate of stillbirth and to improve quality of care in relation to stillbirth. Those affected by pregnancy and infant loss should not suffer alone.
The Morrison government recognises the devastation that the loss of a pregnancy or an infant has on families. That is why we are taking pragmatic steps to invest in supporting these families through our $52 million perinatal service and support package. Having time to grieve and work through what has happened is important in order to ensure that proper support services are well funded and accessible to all. This investment includes $43 million for a new perinatal mental health program to support the mental health of expectant and new parents in Australia and provides support for families who are experiencing grief following stillbirth, miscarriage or infant death. Further, it includes a $7 million investment for stillbirth measures, including a stillbirth education and awareness program, research to minimise preventable stillbirth, and investment in the Safer Baby Bundle project, a new initiative to reduce Australia's high rate of stillbirth.
I recently spoke at a UNICEF and WHO Global Reduction in Stillbirth Zoom meeting, which was an international collaboration for assessing how to decrease stillbirths globally. I was very happy to represent the Minister for Health on that occasion. It was interesting to note that in an international context we have very good levels of preventing stillbirth in this country, but, unfortunately, disadvantaged women and families are at greater risk. That includes those from an Indigenous background, those from an immigrant background and those from rural and remote parts of Australia.
So there's much work to be done to improve stillbirth outcomes here in Australia. The investments will provide an improved and targeted intensive support service for families who are vulnerable. This includes those preventive measures that we know can reduce stillbirth, including targeting smoking, diabetes and infections such as HIV and hepatitis. These are all risk factors for stillbirth, and we need to work across the community, particularly in vulnerable communities, to decrease these risk factors in order to improve outcomes in relation to stillbirth. The Morrison government has also committed $7.6 million to ensuring that all eligible families who experience a stillbirth or the death of a child under 12 months of age will receive a payment of $3,600 to support them during that terrible time. This provides additional support for around 900 families each year.
The loss of a child is beyond devastating. As I said in my first speech, the words 'orphan', 'widow' and 'widower' describe a loss, but there is no word for the loss of a child. In fact, there is no word I know in any non-English language, either, for the loss of a child. It is an unspeakable grief. I am very proud that both sides of this House know the importance of this, and I'm very pleased that the opposition have been supportive of the amendments to this bill. Such matters are above politics and partisanship. I commend this bill and these amendments to the House.
This is an example of parliament at its best: both sides of the chamber coming together to work on a solution for a problem that in many respects has been a silent trauma for too long and something that has taken a huge emotional toll on many in our community. This bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020, provides unpaid parental leave entitlements for families dealing with the trauma of stillbirths, infant deaths and premature births. The changes are long overdue and they're hard fought for, and I want to pay tribute to the many brave parents who gave evidence to the Senate committee and have campaigned for reforms such as this over previous decades. I certainly commend and support this bill.
Labor called on the government last November to change bereavement payments to ensure that all parents are treated equally, whether their child's heart beats once before death or their baby is stillborn, and we welcome the fact that the government is changing the stillborn baby payment for a second or subsequent stillbirth as well. Labor had highlighted the inconsistency that parents who had a subsequent stillborn baby were receiving a lower payment than for their first stillborn child, and the government's changes will equalise the payments for families in these tragic situations.
Parents of stillborn babies are parents, yet for years they have not received the same supports as parents whose babies died after a live birth. A mother who gives birth to a stillborn baby has to recover physically. Both parents have to recover emotionally and also attend to their parenting responsibilities, including an autopsy, a funeral, a cremation or burial, medical evaluation and counselling, including grief counselling. Access to financial support can go some way to helping those families when they need it most.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2,419 lives were lost due to stillbirth or newborn deaths in 2018, and the majority of those deaths were stillbirths. Six babies a day are stillborn in Australia, and, despite medical advancements, stillbirth rates in Australia have not changed in two decades. The rates of stillbirth and newborn death are significantly higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This is one area where we're beginning to see some more research into the causes and, hopefully, prevention where possible of stillbirths in Australia. It's one of the biggest causes of infant death in Australia, and the rate of death from stillbirth is still higher than the nation's road toll, in itself a shocking statistic.
For many parents, going back to work after experiencing stillbirth is extremely difficult. Having to go back before they're ready can be detrimental to their personal health and wellbeing and has a major impact on their productivity. Ultimately, in some circumstances, it may cost them their job, and that's an outcome that helps no-one. Research was commissioned by the Stillbirth Foundation to support this. In 2016, the PwC report commissioned by that foundation found that stillbirth cost the economy $681 million between 2016 and 2020. Further, it found that an employee who returns to work too early after a stillbirth will be prone to absenteeism and difficulty concentrating when they do get back into the workforce and, further, that mothers of stillborn babies, when returning to work early, performed at only 26 per cent of their normal rate of productivity after 30 days. We know that the grief has been made more difficult by the COVID pandemic, with family separated due to social-distancing requirements and people removed from their usual support networks. At a time when people do need support, when they're at their most vulnerable and when they're suffering such loss, we must continue to make all possible efforts to reduce the rate of stillbirths and infant loss.
The scale of this tragedy must spur Australia into a concerted effort, including support for those impacted by higher rates of pregnancy loss and infant death, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and those in remote communities. The Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education produced the first national set of recommendations to drive down that stillbirth rate in Australia. The draft National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan is currently under development, and I congratulate those on that Senate committee for coming up with those important recommendations and, as I said earlier, those that gave evidence. This bill will make a significant difference to Australian families, particularly those parents and families who experience stillbirth—six families each day getting that additional support to ensure that they have the time to recover properly and to seek and get the necessary emotional support so that a return to the workplace can be done as sensitively and as productively as possible.
Labor remains committed to elevating the prominence and priority of reducing stillbirths and infant loss, as we continue to support Australian families, friends and loved ones who've endured this incomparable grief. I want to congratulate those senators that were part of the Senate select committee—particularly Senators McCarthy, Keneally and Bilyk—for the work that they did. I thank all of those organisations that have worked tirelessly to ensure that government listened to them and to get us where we are today. There's certainly more work that needs to be done to ensure that we can prevent stillbirth and save thousands of families every year the grief of those who've experienced stillbirth. Yet this bill does go some way in providing that support from government, and, importantly, it represents government listening to the appeals of those who've suffered this inconsolable loss. Lastly, I pay tribute to all the parents who've shared their sad, personal stories of stillbirth, including many MPs and senators in this place.
I rise to speak in favour of the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020, which makes sensible, compassionate changes to the Fair Work Act to protect the rights of parents experiencing the most unimaginable of tragedies: the death of an infant.
Six babies are stillborn in Australia every day—2,000 a year. It's the most common cause of child mortality. For most cases, we don't know the cause. Under current legislation, parents on unpaid parental leave who experience a stillbirth or the death of their child in the first 24 months of life can be recalled to work by their employer with just six weeks notice. Parents on adoption related unpaid parental leave whose child dies in the first 24 months of life can be recalled to work by their employer with just four weeks notice. For parents experiencing this most profound grief, these rules are cruel. They are unworthy of the decent country that we are, and it is so right that they be changed. This bill will give parents of stillborn babies access to the same unpaid parental leave entitlements as other families—a guaranteed 12 months of unpaid parental leave. For an employee whose child dies during the first 24 months of life, the bill will ensure that their employer will no longer be able to cancel any upcoming unpaid parental leave they might have, or, if they're already on leave, require them to return to work earlier than they may wish to. The legislation will also give more flexibility to parents of premature babies or babies that require immediate hospitalisation after birth by allowing those parents to go back to work while their child is in hospital, if they choose to, and then recommence unpaid parental leave when their child comes home. These are structural changes which will never dampen the pain, but they will recognise it.
Thursday 15 October was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Leading into that day was a story of such loss by Sophie Aubrey in The Sydney Morning Herald. It was the story of Victoria and Danny Liston and their baby daughter, Kiera, who died soon after her birth. Baby Kiera was born at full term after an uneventful pregnancy and birth, but her condition deteriorated rapidly and she was whisked from her mother's arms into the neonatal intensive care unit, where the staff tried to save her. Victoria and Danny said of Kiera's life:
It's not just those five hours after she was born, and not just those few days in hospital after—
when they could keep her and hold her—
It was actually from the moment we found out we were pregnant
Victoria says they have devoted their lives now to keeping their little girl present, saying, 'She will be part of our family forever and, when we have future children, they will know about her.'
This story was a powerful trigger to me of the many experiences I've had as a midwife, caring for parents who've suffered miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. The scene of the intensive care unit—noisy, intense, pressured. The shock. The desperate faces of parents. The longing for a miracle from the skilled hands of the paediatricians, midwives and nurses. But also there were other times, when a couple were admitted, knowing their little baby had died in utero. The sombre and quiet preparation for the birth. The grief, the fear, and the gossamer thread of hope that all of this was just some terrible mistake and their little baby would be born alive. Then came the birth itself. It was always the sound of silence at the birth that struck me. No cry, no sounds of life. The quiet movements of the midwife as the little baby is lifted to his mother and respectfully wrapped. The respectful confirmation that a longed-for heartbeat was indeed silent. The stillness. A sacred moment of a different type. It wasn't always so. The opportunity for parents to hold and keep their stillborn baby close with them after the birth is relatively recent. Common wisdom was to spare the mother the pain of seeing the child in order to help her get over it. I have cared for elderly women in the last days of their lives who recounted the grief and the still unbearable loss of a baby who had died many decades earlier who they never held and often never named.
This brings me to research. On 27 March 2018, the Senate established the Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education to inquire into, and report on, the future of stillbirth research and education in Australia. That committee tabled its report on 4 December 2018. I refer the House to an important submission to that committee from a colleague of mine, Professor Caroline Homer AO, Distinguished Professor of Midwifery at the Centre for Midwifery, Child and Family Health at the University of Technology Sydney, and now Director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at the Burnet Institute. She highlighted strong research from around the world, half of which is collected in Australia, that midwifery continuity of care is a model that can make a real difference in the prevention of stillbirth. The evidence base, she said, is clear: if women see the same few midwives throughout their pregnancy, they will know those midwives and those midwives will know those women during labour and birth. We find from that evidence that there are fewer preterm births and these women are less likely to lose their babies and will have a much more positive experience. But this is not happening across the country. There are pockets of exemplary practice, and indeed there is policy that the state level, but we have no national-level policy for continuity of midwifery care.
The submission from the Australian College of Midwives made a similar call, stating the need for:
… a universal approach to stillbirth research and education across Australia that includes:
I'm pleased that the Australian government responded to that Senate report with an investment of $7.2 million in initiatives designed to reduce stillbirths. The Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth is one such funded initiative. It has grown from the work of the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand, who it maintains a very strong linkage with.
The Stillbirth CRE recognises that stillbirth has enormous economic and psychosocial impacts for women, parents, families, communities and the health system; that there has been little reduction in stillbirth rates for over 20 years; that women from disadvantaged backgrounds have a greater risk of stillbirth than the average population; and that families whose child is stillborn often receive suboptimal care. The stillbirth rate in Australia is approximately 35 per cent higher than those of the top-performing countries globally. In up to 50 per cent of stillbirths, deficiencies in care are identified, and in around 20 to 30 per cent the death is avoidable due to these factors. That's shocking.
In partnership with health departments across Australia, a 'bundle of care' to address the priority evidence practice gaps in stillbirth prevention has been developed and implemented. Similar care bundles in England and Scotland have shown a 20 per cent reduction in stillbirth rates. So the goal here in Australia is to implement these bundles after 28 weeks gestation and reduce our rate by 20 per cent. The Stillbirth CRE has led the development of these bundles of care to address the priority evidence gap, and the Safer Baby Bundle consists of five elements designed to reduce stillbirth rates after 28 weeks gestation: firstly, by improving the awareness and care of women with decreased fetal movements; secondly, by doing pregnancy risk assessment and ongoing monitoring for fetal growth restriction; thirdly, by supporting women to stop smoking; fourthly, by providing advice for pregnant women on maternal sleeping positions; and, fifthly, by supporting shared decision-making around timing of birth for women with high risk factors for stillbirth.
There are some moments in this place where we actually get to do something good, and this legislation is one of them. It comes from such good work that came out of our Senate committee. I join with others in this House to congratulate our members in the Senate who brought this important work to our attention and enabled legislation such as this to be made. In conclusion, given the year that we have had, the isolation of the pandemic has exacerbated the grief and loneliness felt by parents who have experienced a stillbirth or infant loss this year. I encourage people to reach out to bereaved loved ones and friends, not just at the time of that death but long into the future, because that grief never goes away. The lifetime of loss is one of love and longing. I commend this bill to the House.
I thank all members for their contributions to the debate on the bill. The government is pleased to be delivering on its commitment to provide improved support for families who experience stillbirth or the death of a child in the first 24 months, and to be introducing much-needed flexibility into the unpaid parental leave provisions. This bill marks an important step in unpaid parental leave entitlements, which are just as important during the COVID-19 pandemic as they were before.
These are sensible and measured reforms. While continuing to implement the specific measures to support families impacted by COVID-19, the government is progressing these important reforms to unpaid parental leave as part of our ongoing commitment to parents and families. Clear and consistent minimum standards in relation to leave entitlements, with improved support for families who experience stillbirth, are some of the actions this government is taking under the National Stillbirth Action and Implementation Plan.
Every day in Australia six babies are stillborn, affecting over 2,000 families each year. Parents whose baby is stillborn or dies in the first 24 month of life should not be required to return from leave earlier than they would like. While we know most employers support their employees in tough times, the changes in the bill will provide certainty to parents who experience stillbirth by ensuring their unpaid parental leave entitlements under the Fair Work Act would be the same as if their baby had lived. This means that, for an employee whose baby is stillborn or dies in the first 24 months of life, the bill will ensure that the employer will no longer be able to cancel any upcoming unpaid parental leave they might have or, if they are already on leave, require them to return to work earlier than they may wish to.
While not all parents will want to remain on unpaid parental leave for the full 12-month period, it is important that the option is available to them. The bill will also provide better and clearer access to compassionate leave in relation to stillborn babies. Parents on unpaid parental leave will be able to take compassionate leave if the child to whom the parental leave relates is stillborn or dies. Unfortunately, there are also children who are hospitalised immediately after birth. For these parents, the law shouldn't hinder sensible agreements at the workplace level. We've heard from parents that the current Fair Work Act is too rigid in situations where a baby is hospitalised immediately after birth, which is particularly concerning for parents of babies born prematurely. Many parents would like to be able to work while their baby is in hospital and preserve their unpaid parental leave for when the baby comes. The bill will allow parents in such situations to agree with their employer to effectively put their unpaid parental leave on hold, work while their baby is hospitalised and resume their unpaid parental leave when their baby is discharged. This will give parents the ability to work while their baby is in hospital, if it suits them and their employer, and have more of their 12-month leave entitlement to spend at home with their child.
The bill also increases the flexibility of the unpaid parental leave provisions complementing the flexibility improvements in the government's Paid Parental Leave Scheme. Introducing greater flexibility into how parents can take unpaid parental leave will help participation and productivity. Under the new flexible component of the Paid Parental Leave Scheme parents can claim up to 30 days of their 18-week parental leave entitlement for periods as short as one day any time before the child turns two years old. The Fair Work Act changes will provide complementary flexibility to the existing 12-month unpaid parental leave entitlement by providing the capacity for parents to take up to 30 days of the existing unpaid parental leave entitlement flexibly within two years of the child's birth or adoption.
Employees will need to give their employer appropriate notice of their intention to use some of the 12-month entitlement flexibility before actually taking flexible unpaid parental leave, aligned with the existing notice provisions for unpaid parental leave in the Fair Work Act as far as possible. This will assist employers with supporting their employees, who are now parents, while managing their operational requirements for the broader workforce. Greater flexibility for employees and employers will be vitally important to the economic recovery from the crisis wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In conclusion, the amendments in the bill are compassionate reforms that will provide parents with more support and clarity around their unpaid parental leave entitlements if they experience a stillbirth or the death of a child in the first two years of life, ensuring these parents can take the leave they had planned to take. The amendments in the bill are sensible reforms that will provide parents with more flexibility when their baby is hospitalised following birth and when making decisions about how to organise work and caring commitments. The measures in the bill are an important package of reforms that provide parents with improved support and greater choice and flexibility to combine care and work responsibilities. Finally, I want to recognise and thank all the parents who gave their time and shared their stories. I pay tribute to the precious children they lost. I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Watson has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.