11 May 2021

Women: Workplace Safety, Brain Cancer
Tuesday, 11 May 2021


All women deserve to be safe at work. That's something that shouldn't have to be said again and again, but it does need to be said.

I'd like to share with the Senate information about an important centre in the Northern Territory called the NT Working Women's Centre. Sadly, the federal government has turned its back on the safety of working women in the Northern Territory by cutting funding to the only NT-wide service providing free advice and advocacy. The NT Working Women's Centre has been supporting women in regional and remote areas to have safer workplaces for more than 30 years, but this government has cut their core funding, with the NT Working Women's Centre facing a very uncertain future from 30 June. Recommendation 49 from the [email protected] report says working women's centres should be supported by the Australian government. Yet, disappointingly, especially tonight, this government is still continuing to let the NT Working Women's Centre close its doors after June, leaving the rest of us stranded.

In December 2020, the centre was unsuccessful in securing its core funding from the Fair Work Ombudsman under the federal community engagement grant, and, every four years, the NT Working Women's Centre had to go through this funding drama. But this time, the federal government decided to award the funding for the NT to a youth law organisation in New South Wales. No disrespect to this youth law organisation in New South Wales—it no doubt does an excellent job—but it is a hell of a long way from the Northern Territory. So the NT Working Women's Centre is left without three-quarters of its core funding after 30 years of supporting Territory women. The NT government has provided the centre with short-term funding to cover this shortfall, but this government continues to avoid the responsibilities that it so blatantly needs to give. The fact is most Australians and Territorians are no different. They spend one-third of their lives at work, and the federal government should be prioritising the creation of safe and healthy work environments, including right here in Parliament House.

I'm proud to say that workers from the NT Working Women's Centre recently delivered training to senior Labor staffers around identifying and dealing with workplace harassment, but this training is only one facet of their work. In the last six months of 2020, the service had 2,093 client contacts, with 157 clients receiving case support. Fifty per cent of their clients are from regional, rural and remote locations, and, to give you an idea of some of the work that they do, I'd like to share the story of one client. We will call her Maria to protect her identity. Maria was working in the Northern Territory on a visa, and, after hearing about her unsafe working conditions, debt bondage and appalling treatment, the NT Working Women's Centre took advice from Anti-Slavery Australia and the case was referred to the Australian Federal Police. This resulted in a human trafficking investigation uncovering national and international links exploiting workers across an industry. Eight people in the Northern Territory were removed from forced labour. Without the NT Working Women's Centre, these vulnerable women would still be exploited, harassed and treated appallingly. I urge the federal government to please step up in relation to our working women's centres across Australia but especially the NT Working Women's Centre. We need to make sure they continue well beyond 30 June.

I'd also like to take this opportunity tonight to talk about the ongoing and life-changing impact on people in our community affected by brain tumours, including patients and their carers, families, friends and colleagues. I also acknowledge the significant cost to the community and the economy of these diseases, primarily through premature death from brain tumours and brain cancer—particularly, and heartbreakingly, the deaths of children. Over the last 35 years, while survival rates for many cancers have improved, survival for brain cancer has shown no significant improvement. Five-year survival for brain cancer remains stubbornly low at 22 per cent.

Cancer Australia estimated that, in 2020, 1,879 new brain cancer diagnoses would occur. That is more than five people in this country being diagnosed with brain cancer—not including non-malignant tumours—every day. For that same year, it was estimated that 1,518 people would die from a malignant brain tumour, and that is, on average, more than four people dying a day, every day.

Distressingly, brain cancer was the leading cause of cancer-related death in Australian children between the ages of zero and 14 years in 2019, and, whilst many childhood cancers have seen excellent increases in overall survival, some childhood brain cancers, such as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, remain terminal on diagnosis, with children surviving an average of only nine months from their diagnosis. This is not acceptable, and we do need to do more as a country.

The cost of brain cancer is more than the suffering and grief of those affected by it, though this cost is more than we would want anyone in our community to bear. Financially, brain cancer costs more per person than any other cancer because it is highly debilitating, affects people in their prime and often means family members can't work if they become carers. It is the cancer with the highest total burden of disease.

On 28 November 2017, the Senate Select Committee into Funding for Research into Cancers with Low Survival Rates handed down its report. I and seven other senators sat on this select committee, with Senator Catryna Bilyk sitting as chair. Many in this place will know that, in March 2008, Senator Bilyk had two benign brain tumours removed. In February this year, our colleague Senator Bilyk announced she had been diagnosed with a further brain tumour, a slow-growing meningioma. She has advised that it does not pose a serious threat to her health and she is taking a short leave of absence from parliament to undertake treatment. And, Senator Bilyk, if you're listening, our love and thoughts go with you.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!

Senator McCarthy: It's heartening to know that Senator Bilyk does not currently face a serious threat, but she is incredibly courageous and deeply passionate about wanting to see this disastrous disease treated more seriously in Australia and, in particular, by the Australian parliament.

The Senate Select Committee into Funding for Research into Cancers with Low Survival Rates made 25 recommendations in its report. On 16 November 2018, the government provided its response to the report. Of the 25 recommendations, 10 were simply noted, eight were supported in principle, five were supported and two were deemed to be the responsibilities of the states. Most disappointingly, recommendation 24—that the federal, state and territory governments develop and implement a comprehensive Australia-wide strategy to increase five-year survival rates for low-survival-rate cancers to above 50 per cent by 2027—was only noted.

While the Brain Cancer Mission of doubling survival rates over the 10 years to 2027 was welcome, this did not aim as high as the committee had recommended. Most importantly, I am aware that brain tumour patients, their carers, families and friends had hoped for more support for the report's recommendations. If carried through, the recommendations have the potential to improve quality of life, reduce financial burden and ultimately, and most critically, extend and save the lives of brain tumour patients. I celebrate these improvements, little as they are, and I hope that very soon Australians facing brain cancer, for the sake of those who love them, can also have vastly improved survival rates and a chance for more of them to live long, healthy and productive lives in our community. We've seen improved survival rates in other cancers; notably, for example, the five-year survival rate of prostate cancer has increased from 60 per cent to more than 90 per cent.