Senate debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:49 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to offer Labor's support to this important legislation, which will make a substantial difference in the lives of parents who have experienced the tragedy of stillbirth. The principle effect of the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020 will be to provide the same unpaid parental leave entitlements to parents who experience stillbirth as any other parent. As we know, through hearing the many tragic stories from parents who have lived through this difficult and painful experience, they are parents too.

This bill will make a significant difference to Australian families, particularly those parents and families who experience stillbirths—six families each day. However, while this bill makes a difference in respect to unpaid parental leave, it only partly addresses the bipartisan recommendation of 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.

Senators who were part of the Senate select committee should be congratulated for this outcome, particularly Senators McCarthy, Keneally and Bilyk. Once more I echo the comments made by the shadow minister in the other place and express my sincere appreciation to all those organisations who have worked tirelessly to get to where we are today. Lastly, I pay tribute to all the parents who have shared their sad and very personal stories of stillbirth, including the parliamentarians in this place. I commend this bill to the Senate.

12:51 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Thanks for the opportunity to be able to say a few words about the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020 today. This bill is long overdue, but it's welcome. It's one of several legislative changes that the government is making which improve support for parents of stillborn babies. Yesterday I was pleased to also see the passage of the legislation which brought stillborn baby payments to second and subsequent stillbirths into line with those for a first stillbirth. That bill also extended the family tax benefit part A bereavement payment to parents of stillborn babies and of babies who die before their first birthday. Labor has been pressing the government to make those changes and the changes in this bill for some time, so of course we're pleased to support them.

It's taken decades to properly recognise the needs of families of stillborn babies, possibly because of the misunderstanding of the profound impact it has on them. It is a deeply painful experience. The grief of this tragedy, which is borne by 2,200 Australian families every year—or six a day, as Senator Brown mentioned—can be just as profound as the grief experienced after the loss of any other child. I understand this as the parent of a stillborn baby.

It's been 37 years since I gave birth to Timmy, and I still grieve his loss, as does my husband and my family. To try to get some sense of what this experience is like for a birth mother, just imagine that you've been through something like five to nine months of pregnancy. After all the body and hormonal changes from pregnancy, you then go through childbirth, an experience which one-in-three women, according to surveys, find traumatic anyway. After this exhausting journey, instead of the joy of a healthy baby, you're left with a profound feeling of grief, loss and emptiness. Your hopes of being a mother and a father are shattered, your arms are empty and your dreams for the future of your child are absolutely shattered. While you are going through this profound grief, you're also faced with all sorts of heart-wrenching decisions about funeral arrangements and whether to have an autopsy and the expenses that go with all of that. I will say that, 37 years ago, there were no payments available for parents that had stillborn babies, and it was so traumatic for my husband and I to have to deal with all of that. Then there's the decision of having to face whether you return to work too soon after an experience like that.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report, commissioned by the Stillbirth Foundation, found that stillbirth cost the economy $681 million over the past five years, so it's of little surprise that much of that cost—a bit over 40 per cent—was due to absenteeism and the loss of productivity of parents of stillborn babies who had to return to work before they were ready. As the Stillbirth Foundation stated when they welcomed this legislation:

Parents of stillborn babies are parents too, and six weeks is not enough time to grieve the loss of their babies, let alone recover from all of the physical side effects of pregnancy and birth.

As well as improving unpaid leave provisions for parents of stillborn babies, this legislation, importantly, removes the provision that allows employers to recall employees on unpaid parental leave or cancel any upcoming planned period of unpaid parental leave. This applies to leave for which the employee has given notice if their child is stillborn or dies within the first 24 months of life.

While the changes to unpaid leave are welcome, there is also work to be done to bring paid parental leave for parents with stillborn babies into line with those for other parents. This was a key recommendation of the Senate stillbirth inquiry. A number of private companies have already done this, extending the entitlements to around half a million workers. These companies have recognised the extraordinary impact of stillbirth and have gone above and beyond the minimum standards in supporting their workers through this tragedy. Sadly, there are millions of other workers who, if they experience a stillbirth, will not have access to this entitlement. While those workers can access unpaid leave, they may face the unenviable choice between losing their income and returning to work too early, all while they are still dealing with that incredible grief and trying to make decisions about their baby's funeral. I'm really disappointed that the government did not support our second reading amendment in the House and that they've failed to acknowledge the incredible stress that this puts families experiencing stillbirth under.

I would also like to thank all senators who participated in the stillbirth Senate inquiry. My heartfelt thanks go to my Labor colleagues Senator Keneally and Senator McCarthy, who have been strong advocates for these changes as well. We've also been strongly supported by the shadow minister for health, Mr Chris Bowen. As I said, as the parent of a stillborn baby, I absolutely urge senators to support this bill.

12:57 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to take the opportunity to say a few words in contribution to this debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020, to note the importance of this legislation and to also thank all senators and all members of this parliament who have shared their stories, and particularly the members of the public who shared their stories during the Senate committee that we had into stillbirth. I particularly want to thank Senator Bilyk for her braveness and courage in speaking so openly about her experience, Senator Keneally for her work in initiating the inquiry and Senator McCarthy for chairing that inquiry, which I was very privileged to be part of.

I want to note the importance and the significance of the Senate process in getting to this stage—having that Senate inquiry that was initiated by hearing the stories of families right across the country and hearing that there were solutions. You cannot take away the tragedy of losing an unborn child, but at least there are things that can be done to support the families who are suffering the tragedy of stillbirth. There are things that can be done to reduce the frequency of stillbirths, and then there are things that can be done to support the families afterwards. These recommendations were made from that Senate inquiry, and it is so satisfying now to see some of them being reflected in legislation. So I want to note that this is a really good example of the Senate working well to achieve legislation that is really going to change the lives of families across Australia.

12:58 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank all senators for their contribution to the debate on what is a very important bill. The government is pleased to be delivering on its commitment to provide improved support for families who experience stillbirth or death of a child in the first 24 months and to be introducing much-needed flexibility into the unpaid parental leave provisions.

The Fair Work Amendment (Improving Unpaid Parental Leave for Parents of Stillborn Babies and Other Measures) Bill 2020 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.

The amendments in the bill are compassionate reforms that will provide parents with more support and clarity around their unpaid parental leave entitlements where 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, greater choice and flexibility to combine care and work responsibilities.

Finally, I want to recognise and thank all of the parents who gave their time and shared their stories, and to pay tribute to the precious children they lost. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.