Minister for Health and Aged Care speech - 30 November 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's speech at the dedication ceremony to unveil the National Site of Recognition for thalidomide survivors and their families.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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General public

Thank you, Aunty Serena, for a beautiful Welcome to Country. The idea of the skies crying yesterday during the apology, and today a still quiet day for us to reflect and commemorate this memorial is a beautiful way to start such an important day.

Can I also acknowledge that we’re meeting on the lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to you, Aunty Serena, and to other elders past, present and emerging. 

It is a great honour to be here with you all today, with survivors, family and friends. 

I‘m here also with parliamentary colleagues, Senator Reynolds, representing the opposition, and Senator Steel-John, representing the Greens Party. And that symbolises the cross-partisan of the work that has been underway, under two governments now, for the last several years.

But that great honour is, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, because “you have been survivors from the day you were born. But more than that, you have been advocates, organisers, champions and warriors.”

Yesterday, the Prime Minister acknowledged that fact as he delivered the National Apology in the Australian Parliament, along with the Leader of the Opposition.

Today, we unveil a site that will acknowledge that fact, forever more.

A site that acknowledges a tragic period in our history: a time when expectant mothers were let down by a system that should have lifted them up.

A system that assured them that this drug was perfectly safe, when the truth was it was anything but.

One dose was enough to cause devastating harm.

One dose to spark a cascade of injury.

One dose to cause a lifetime of regret.

A lifetime of regret that might never be reasoned away.

A lifetime of asking “why” and asking that much harder question: “what if”

A decision taken in a moment, that would ripple through a lifetime.

Through hundreds of lifetimes and thousands that never were.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday: “these parents did not fail their children. The system failed them both.”

This National Site of Recognition is an acknowledgement of that, and so much more.

It will serve as a reminder and a permanent call for vigilance that – as a people, a Parliament and a country, we will never let such a tragedy occur again.

Yesterday, as you all know, marked 62 years exactly, since Thalidomide was withdrawn from sale in Australia.

Developed and produced in Germany, between the late 1950s and early 1960s, Thalidomide was distributed across more than 40 countries and recommended to thousands of pregnant women.

The drug was marketed around the world as something of a panacea: a safe and effective drug for treating insomnia, headaches, as well nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy.

But it’s effects on pregnancy had never been tested.

And as a country, Australia had no way to confirm the drugmaker’s claim of safety.

All too late, the truth became known.

By the time it was removed from the market, countless Australian mothers had taken Thalidomide. 

For too long, we as a nation accepted the fiction that the Thalidomide tragedy could not have been foreseen and could not have been averted. 

It was only because of the efforts of those here today, and so many others besides, that that longstanding fiction has been overturned.

We now accept a hard truth, too long denied.

That if the effects of Thalidomide had been realised sooner, the awful damage it wrought might have been prevented.

Today, we have the Therapeutic Goods Administration – a national regulator of medicines and medical devices – to protect the Australian community.

But 60 years ago, we did not.

Indeed, at that time, Australia had no meaningful or worthwhile way of evaluating the safety of medicines.

That protection was not there, exactly when it was needed.

It was not there for the mothers, for the parents, or their children.

And the ripples of that absence are what bring us here today.

As he delivered the National Apology yesterday the Prime Minister also made a promise.

A promise that: “your legacy – and your example – will never be forgotten.”

With this National Site of Recognition, we give form to that promise.

We make it concrete, through a lasting memorial.

Here on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, in the nation’s capital, in view of the Parliament, the National Site of Recognition will be exactly that.

As Health Minister, I am truly humbled to be here to dedicate this site. 

To dedicate it on behalf of all of those who have fought so hard to bring it about.

And to all those who couldn’t be here to see it become reality. 

Everyone who pushed for the Senate Inquiry, the committee members from across the Parliament, but most of all: the survivors and their family members who gave their testimony and spoke their truth. 

Chief among them of course, is Lisa McManus, who you’ll hear from next.

Over many years, Lisa has been a constant and tireless advocate for survivors and their families. 

It was Lisa’s lobbying that laid the groundwork for the Senate Inquiry, in the first place.

She then led negotiations with the former Government over the support package.

And earlier this year, Lisa was – quite rightly – awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. 

She remains a source of reasoned and reasonable advice to the Government as we continue to work to support survivors.

The Senate Inquiry delivered its final report in March 2019 and the following year, my predecessor Greg Hunt, to his great credit, overturned decades of neglect and delivered a much-needed support package.

One that acknowledged the physical and emotional pain and suffering that survivors have experienced. 

One that provides lifetime assistance above and beyond what is available through other programs of support.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that we will re-open that program to new applicants, to ensure that anyone who may have missed the previous opportunity to apply does not miss out on the support they need and so richly deserve.

And for all who receive that payment, now and in the future, the Government will ensure the payment isn’t locked in at a particular level, but increases year on year, through indexation.

That support will endure, just as this site will.

A National Site of Recognition that will provide – in the words of Lisa McManus: “permanent recognition in a place of prominence.”

More than a plaque in a park, this is a place where we as an entire nation can focus our reflection.

It will remind every Member and Senator and public servant and passer-by of the moral obligation that each of us hold, as representatives, as decision-makers and just generally as Australians.

The National Site of Recognition has been designed in concert with survivors to do exactly that.

In April 2021, the Department of Health asked survivors, their families, carers and friends what their wishes were.

From those consultations, it was overwhelmingly clear that the site should achieve two things: 

It should recognise and honour the impact on Thalidomide survivors, as well as their loved ones; and it should serve as an enduring reminder to all Australians that the lessons of this tragedy must never be forgotten.

In late 2021, the Department worked with a steering committee of survivors and a carer representative, and with the National Capital Authority, to select an appropriate location.

They were looking for a place that struck a careful balance between being close to other attractions, so people would visit, and providing space for peaceful, private reflection.

This location was identified and agreed to by the Canberra National Memorials Committee. 

And even on an overcast day like this, it really is a beautiful spot. 

Close to the history of the National Carillon and within earshot of children playing at the Boundless Playground.

Easy to access, spacious and really peaceful.

Three design options for the memorial were considered, with all survivors invited to have their say on the preferred design.

The result that you can see out there is unique and it is evocative. 

As visitors approach the memorial, they are met by this stunning glass brick gateway.

Now, I’m no architect and I’m no art critic.

But I’m told that every detail has been thoughtfully designed to be representative of the experience of survivors and their families.

The void at the heart of the memorial represents loss, while the gateway frames a view to the lake, offering hope, offering fulfilment.

The bricks represent strength and resilience.

But made from glass, as they are, they also reflect the need for transparency and the fragility of life.

The ripple effect, on the facade and through the glass, echoes the effect that Thalidomide had on the lives of survivors and their families.

It’s really very beautiful – but more importantly – it has real meaning.

It will forever tell the story of this dark chapter.

From the seating area, visitors can see an information display with a short history of Thalidomide in Australia.

As you enter the memorial later this morning, you’ll notice that the last line is still vacant.

That spot is where the National Apology will be inscribed.

And etched in the glass bricks of the gateway are words chosen by survivors, including, maybe some people who are here joining us today.

Words they felt were most relevant to their experience.

Words like:

Determination. 
Courage. 
Strength.

Heartfelt words that speak to the resilience of survivors – a resilience that has endured for more than six decades.

But there are other words, too.

Words like:
Suffering. 
Injustice. 
Heartache.
and Anger.

An anger most searing and justified.

A natural response when someone is confronted by another word that also features on the site:

Exclusion.

Through the National Apology yesterday, and the dedication of this monument today, we seek to end that exclusion and offer in its place:

Acknowledgement
Recognition
and Respect.

With this monument, we give form to the promise that the Prime Minister gave in Parliament yesterday: “that your legacy – and your example – will never be forgotten.”

Thank you all so much.

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