House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024


National Apology to all Australians affected by the Thalidomide Tragedy

12:44 pm

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are, in many ways, captives of our childhood. Childhood memories run deep, and they never leave you. Growing up when I did, I clearly remember the devastating effects of polio. I also remember the mobile X-rays deployed around suburbs to combat the scourge of TB and, to add to that, the early warnings we had about asbestos, the pictures at Wittenoom and the photographs of the service men and women exposed to incalculable risk at the Maralinga nuclear testing site. The list could go on, but the memories are clear indeed.

And then there's thalidomide and the photos of babies, their mothers and fathers; the shattered lives; broken futures; and pain and suffering so needlessly inflicted. I was born at a time when mothers were being told to take thalidomide. My mother had severe morning sickness, but I was lucky that, when she was pregnant with me, her obstetrician was a partner of Dr McBride and it was not prescribed to her. This is one of life's sliding-door moments, and meant that I had a healthy and successful life.

The story and tragedy of thalidomide is one of failure. Not by the mothers, for they did nothing wrong, and not by the fathers either. It was a failure by government and the systems that, at the time, were meant to protect them. On reflection, we have to admit that there were really no effective systems in place at all at that time. That's why this apology is so necessary. As a nation, as a community and as a parliament, we owe nothing less not only to the survivors of this tragedy but also to those who didn't survive.

To the mothers both past and still with us: we are sorry. To the fathers both past and still with us: we are sorry. And to the siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins both who have passed and who are still with us: we are sorry. Most importantly, we're sorry to the children who were affected by the thalidomide scourge. We failed you. For all the effects and all the incalculable ripples this tragedy has caused throughout your life, we are sorry.

Thalidomide must surely rank as one of the worst stories in modern health care, and to think it was only a short time ago, with many of those personally affected still with us. I am pleased that many are still here to witness and hear the national apology, for, as much as this is a tragedy, it is also a story of resilience. In addition to my apology to all of the victims, I also commend you for your resilience, for your determination, for your strength and for your bravery. I especially commend you for your bravery. It is only because of that that we have come to this day, albeit over 60 years too late.

Occasionally in this place we stand united as legislators to do the right thing. Today is one of those occasions when I can say I am really proud of this parliament and the chamber. Saying sorry doesn't absolve us in any way, but it is the right thing to do. It allows us to express our collective grief at such a tragedy, and perhaps, just perhaps, it allows us to pause and think about what we can do to redouble our efforts to help the survivors and ensure that this event never happen again.

Sitting suspended from 12:48 to 16:0 1

Debate adjourned.