|It is an absolute pleasure to be here today.
Thank you to:
• Vicki Flenady, Director of the Stillbirth CRE
• Professor David Ellwood, Co-Director of the Stillbirth CRE
• Kate Lynch, CEO of the Stillbirth Foundation
• Professor Euan Wallace, CEO of Safer Care Victoria
• Professor Michael Nicholl, Clinical Excellence Commission in NSW
• Kirstine Sketcher Baker, Executive Director of the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Service at the Clinical Excellence Queensland
• The Honourable Chris Bowen, Shadow Minister for Health
• Anika Wells, Member for Lilley
• Jennifer Howard, Member for Ipswich, and;
• Andrew Laming, the Member for Bowman here on behalf of the Minister for Health
I acknowledge the Turrbal people and pay my respects to elders, past present and emerging.
This is, of course, not my first visit to the Stillbirth Centre for Research Excellence, though it is my first conference with you.
As Vicki knows, I keep bringing new friends along for the Centre and for the broader stillbirth research and parent community.
Last time, I brought the new Member for Lilley here in Brisbane, Anika Wells, and she is back with me today.
Anika is a mum and a very fine Parliamentarian, and a passionate advocate for women’s and maternal health. She is keen to help the CRE here in Brisbane and give it a voice federally.
Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Chris Bowen, Labor’s Shadow Health Minister, and a good friend of mine, and I hope soon to be a good friend of yours. I will be introducing Chris shortly.
Before I do that, I want to reflect briefly on the Stillbirth Senate Select Inquiry.
Some of you will know that 20 years ago I gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Caroline.
Twenty years is about the same length of time that Australia has been keeping somewhat consistent records on stillbirth.
And in 20 years that rate has not changed.
In those 20 years, some 44,000 babies, who were wanted and loved by their parents, were lost to us.
Quite tragically, they were lost to us in large part – a large number of them – because we as a country, collectively had not spoken about the issue of stillbirth, had not sought to understand what causes stillbirth and were not providing parents and clinicians with the advice that would help prevent stillbirth.
This is the important work you have been seeking to do for 20 years, with little public attention and less government support than other public health crises.
I didn’t anticipate or contemplate that I would get a second chance at a political career, but when I was asked to join Labor’s team in the Senate in 2018, I decided that, after nearly two decades, I was ready to be able to speak publicly, and without losing my composure or collapsing into tears, about Caroline and about the rate of stillbirth in Australia.
But it wasn’t just me who needed to speak.
It was all of you who work with passion and commitment to save babies’ lives.
It was all the parents and grandparents who have lost and mourned stillborn babies.
The inquiry would allow Australia to break the silence about stillbirth.
Speaking about stillbirth is important, because this is an issue where remaining silent has been of great detriment to the Australian community and to Australian families.
Remaining silent has meant we don't talk about it. It's meant we don't address it.
It's meant that stillbirth has been a tragedy people have suffered in the quiet shadows.
Australia has viewed stillbirth as a private tragedy, not the public health problem for which it is.
Chris will speak about this shortly.
The Senate Select Inquiry into Stillbirth Education and Research received almost 300 submissions from parents, researchers and clinicians.
To put that in context, it is usual to talk about Senate inquiries receiving tens, maybe a few dozen submissions, not hundreds.
This was also an inquiry, perhaps unlike many others done in Parliament, where there were no bad guys, no villains.
There were only victims, and the only thing that they were victimised by was the silence of the last 20 years.
This inquiry gave them the chance to speak. They spoke loudly and passionately and they were heard by the Senate.
The report made some significant recommendations. I want to speak briefly to a few broad areas.
One is research and information.
As you know, we are really bad in Australia at collecting data when a stillbirth occurs.
We have a shockingly low rate of autopsies when a stillbirth occurs. We do very little to put information about a stillbirth back into the clinical practice in order to prevent it in future.
We collect data inconsistently across jurisdictions. We even have two national datasets that give us wildly varying figures on the actual number of stillbirths.
If you were to look at the ABS data, it would only report about half of the stillbirths that actually happen. So we aren't very good at this.
Other jurisdictions are much better, and we can learn from them.
The report sought to deliver recommendations to address investigation and data collection.
I hope when you read it you can see that we have sought to do this. I particularly note that this report made a recommendation that we should consider funding autopsies for stillbirth through Medicare.
That would make a massive difference. The reality is that stillbirth autopsies are not funded in most states.
It's one of the reasons Australia doesn’t do them, and it's one of the reasons parents don't get information on what went wrong, and clinicians don't get advice and further insight on how to change clinical practice in order to prevent stillbirth.
One of the other areas the report covered was bereavement support.
I have to say that I was a little bit taken aback by the extent that the inquiry went into bereavement, because we started out with terms of reference looking mainly at prevention, education and research.
What we uncovered is that bereavement care plays such an important role in preventing future stillbirths, in helping parents to return to work, in helping our medical professionals deal with their own bereavement, and particularly in helping the medical profession understand what causes stillbirth and how we can prevent it.
On bereavement support, the report made recommendations regarding employment and paid parental leave.
We also made recommendations regarding supporting families at the point at which a stillbirth occurs – particularly in providing bereavement support for culturally and linguistic diverse communities and Aboriginal communities – where the tragedy of a stillbirth is sometimes experienced in a different way to the broader community and where we need special care.
The inquiry and the process of writing it was a remarkable one.
I want to pay tribute to the Chair of this Committee, Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, and to the other senators who participated – Labor Senator Catryna Bilyk, Greens Senator Janet Rice and former Liberal Senators Lucy Gichuhi and Jim Molan
Senator McCarthy was a very wise chair, and we benefitted greatly from her leadership.
Senator Bilyk brought passion and the experience of being the mother of a stillborn son, Timothy.
I want to particularly note former Senator Jim Molan. He was a very valuable member of this committee. He was the Deputy Chair. He contributed well.
At times his military background and strategic thinking was a great aide to us.
His granddaughter, Emily Charlotte, was lost to stillbirth too. Jim brought that passion as a grandparent, which we heard about during the hearings too.
Perhaps I'm not helping the former Senator's career when I say this, but I wish he was still in the Parliament, and perhaps the Liberals might think about bringing him back!
The co-operative effort of the inquiry goes to show that sometimes, in a place that is marked by division and adversarialism, Parliament can come together to do things well.
I am particularly gratified that the Senate unanimously agreed to hold the inquiry, and it was very gratifying to have the opportunity to draw the Senate's attention to the issue of stillbirth.
As I said, there were several hundred submissions.
In closing my remarks, I want to pay tribute to the parents who showed courage, coming forth to talk—often in great grief, but with a spirit of generosity—to share their experiences as the parents of stillborn children with the Senate and with the country.
My experience in this inquiry was a difficult one. As I noted, my daughter Caroline was stillborn 20 years ago.
I was just filled with admiration at the courage with which some of these parents could come forward – sometimes just months after their children had been lost.
To be able to speak, coherently, compassionately and with conviction about what we, as a country, needed to do to ensure that other families didn't live through this tragedy.
This report acknowledges that, if we adopt the recommendations, there is great confidence that we could reduce the rate of stillbirth by twenty per cent in just three years.
That would be remarkable. I know some of you think we can exceed that.
Just meeting that target alone would be hundreds of babies' lives saved.
Given that The Netherlands has reduced its rate by sixty per cent, Scotland by nearly a third, there is no reason we cannot do the same here – we simply need the focus and determination to do so.
To do this, we need to progress the recommendations.
We need to encourage, cajole, agitate, lobby, progress and perhaps occasionally demand that the recommendations of the report are implemented.
Those steps now fall to all of us, including all of you in this room, the Government and the Labor Opposition.
And that is why I am so pleased Chris Bowen is here today.
Chris is Labor’s Shadow Health Minister. Chris is from Western Sydney, where he began his interest in Labor politics, and was first elected to public service as a councillor in 1995. He was elected to the Federal Parliament as the Member for Prospect in 2004.
Chris has served as a Cabinet Minister in a range of portfolios including Human Services, Immigration and Citizenship, Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Small Business. Chris also served as Treasurer to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
That is all very impressive, and means we have an incredibly well-qualified and experienced person to hold the Shadow Health Portfolio.
But what those titles don’t tell you is what I can tell you – Chris is a thoughtful, passionate champion for people who are vulnerable.
Whether it is people who are unemployed, new migrants, indigenous Australians, pensioners, people who are sick or disabled, Chris brings a bleeding heart – in all the best meanings of that phrase – and a focused mind to solve structural and other injustices.
Labor is lucky to have him in our ranks, I am pleased to call him a friend, and we are fortunate that he is joining us here today to speak about stillbirth, the report, and to deliver Labor’s response to the Senate Inquiry. Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Bowen.
MEDIA CONTACT: TIMOTHY DUNLOP 0428 043 110