Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


Smith, Ms Kathy, Infant Mental Health Awareness Week

8:47 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What an interesting sequence of speeches we have heard this evening in the adjournment. For those who have remained listening since Senator Hinch's contribution, he asked who was looking after the children. I think that if we go to Senator Back's comments this evening—and I do want to acknowledge the announcement today of his retirement. I want to acknowledge his service to the Australian people—but I obviously think he chose the wrong party. Nonetheless, it is very important to acknowledge that there are people who are looking after the children, looking after the parents who are looking after the community, who come into public life and want to make a significant contribution to the benefit of the community in which we live. As bleak as the picture is that was painted by Senator Hinch, there are good people doing wonderful things across this country and across this world. We should never lose sight of that hope and of good people doing good work.

I want to take the opportunity tonight to do two things: to acknowledge a fallen comrade—a wonderful woman by the name of Kathy Smith, whose funeral I was privileged to attend last week—and to make some remarks in this inaugural week of infant mental health in my role as shadow assistant minister for mental health with a particular focus on young people.

In making comments on the passing of the former member for Gosford and the cancer campaigner Kathy Smith, I want to note that she succumbed to her illness on Wednesday 31 last month surrounded by her family. I, with many others in the community and Labor New South Wales in particular, attended her memorial service last Thursday at the Greenway Chapel in the Central Coast suburb of Green Point. It was a surreal experience for many given Kathy's relatively young age and the enormous impact and image she had for her devotion to the community on the New South Wales Central Coast. I have previously recounted, in this chamber, my first encounter with Kathy Smith, an absolutely determined woman who bailed me up, like a terrier really, outside a public building in the middle of Gosford and said, 'We have got to get this cancer centre going locally.' She was absolutely dedicated in her pursuit of making that happen as a community member. She was vital in orchestrating that hard-fought campaign to build public radiotherapy treatment for people on the Central Coast.

At the time, many people were racking up large debts to pay for their own private treatment, but others were simply overwhelmed by treatment offered at public institutions in Newcastle and Sydney and they were unable to continue with their treatment. Some of them just hoped that their cancer might disappear. Sadly, that was not the case. Leader of the New South Wales Opposition, the Hon. Luke Foley, noted at the farewell ceremony Kathy's first speech, where she explained:

I had become aware of an elderly lady who had to travel from Wyong to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for radiotherapy treatment each day for six weeks.

That is a very long public transport journey of well over an hour and three-quarters.

She travelled by bus and train, and what torture that must have been for her.

Kathy was living in Hornsby at the time of her original diagnosis of cancer, and she was able to get her treatment only 10 minutes away from home. This is what she said:

Silly or not, I was left with a feeling of guilt knowing that this much older lady was having to struggle to travel for treatment while I could be driven for mine without any effort on my part.

She saw the injustice and she acted. That is just an expression of who she was.

I was delighted to campaign alongside Kathy Smith, witnessing her steely determination both prior to and during her period as a public advocate and as a member of the Labor Party in New South Wales parliament. She campaigned alongside me to convince both state and federal Labor governments to commit $29 million from the federal government and $10 million from the state government to create this amazing clinic. She was engaged in the beautiful design of the cancer clinic right down to the last, including beautiful images people would be able to look up to whilst they were actually having their treatment. The great thing, as was noted at Kathy's memorial service, is that there are thousands of people walking around the Central Coast who have survived their cancer experience and encounter because of her work. That is a message of hope.

Kathy's devoted husband, Peter, paid a beautiful tribute to Kathy. Those who attended felt the happiness she brought into so many people's hearts, especially those of her husband, her children and her grandchildren. Her son Richard's very powerful tribute was simply a series of sentences that began with the words, 'Our mum'. What a wonderful way to acknowledge that great gift of Kathy's generosity and love to her own family.

I think it is important to reflect on Kathy Smith's story because it does rise above politics as usual, as I hope to indicate in my opening remarks this evening. It reminds us that despite current partisan trends in political discourse which sometimes are driven, I think, by nothing more than a profit motive, here and around the world people of good heart—people like Kathy Smith—with a steely determination can make a life-changing and life-enhancing impact on our community. Kathy will be very sadly missed. Her deep commitment to her family will leave a great emptiness in their lives in particular.

With regard to infant mental health, I want to acknowledge that this is the inaugural Infant Mental Health Awareness Week in Australia. I think being a parent is an enormous challenge. To be able to support the mental health of our children is also a great challenge. Infant Mental Health Awareness Week was first launched in the UK in June last year by the charity Parent Infant Partnership UK to raise a greater understanding for policymakers like us and also for professionals and parents about why giving every baby the best possible start in life matters to the life chances of those children and their families and, through them, our society at large.

In the launch, executive director of Parent Infant Partnership, Clair Rees, in England, emphasised:

Good mental health begins in early childhood. When a baby has the opportunity to form a secure bond with their parent or caregiver, this can support their potential and ability to form healthy relationships throughout life.

Research evidence now confirms a very direct link between difficulties in infant-parent child bonding and attachment and psychiatric disorders in later life. They are not always linked, but there are predictors and there are wonderful experiences of infancy that can really improve people's life chances. This year, the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health has joined with their UK counterparts to run an awareness week from June 12 to 16, to improve recognition that infancy is a critical time for the development of the emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing of young Australians.

The concept of infant mental health seems at once abstract but then so obvious. After all, it is not as if a toddler, from its birth to two years of age, could be subject to or respond to clinical intervention as it exists for older children and adults. Yet, what happens to children has a significant impact on their life futures, as do the decisions we make here around public policy impact on their parents and their capacity to provide that great level of care. A child that begins life with warm, sensitive, stable and responsive caregiving relationships will be more likely to return to these attributes in later life. These are the tools that the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health seeks to promote for caregivers during this week. It is worth noting and indeed following the path the UK is taking in infant mental health.

The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health advocates the importance of paid parental leave for the early years so that parents, mums and dads, can share and make the choice to stay home with their child if they wish. In terms of overall early intervention, it is essential that infants have nurturing environments and stable sustainable relationships. These first years are critical for the development of young Australians. Research has shown that early experience of infants' nurturing relationships plays a crucial role in their development.

It is interesting that an American researcher has made a direct correlation between the economy and infant mental health, citing that early childhood development actually influences economic health and social outcomes for both individuals and society. Getting young people off to a great start is an important thing— (Time expired)