National apology to all Australians impacted by the thalidomide tragedy

Anthony Albanese MP
Prime Minister of Australia


Mr Speaker,

Sixty-two years ago, today, the 29th of November, 1961 was the day thalidomide was withdrawn from sale in Australia.

Every day between then and now, Australians affected by thalidomide have been owed an apology.

Today, at long last, Australia will say sorry.

I want to acknowledge and welcome all the thalidomide survivors and their families here with us in the Parliament.

I extend that same respect to all those watching from afar, here with us in spirit.

You have been survivors from the day you were born.

More than that, you have been advocates, organisers, champions and warriors.

Time and time again you have summoned remarkable resolve, you have shown an extraordinary strength of character.

Yet for so long, parliaments and governments have not proved equal to this, or worthy of it.

Too often, we have let you down.

Today, your presence lifts all of us up.

And together, today, we mark an absence too.

At the conclusion of these proceedings, we will join in a minute’s silence to remember and honour all those this tragedy took from us far too soon.

Because this apology will forever belong to those Australians, as well.

Mr Speaker,

Thalidomide was recommended to pregnant women to help with anxiety, insomnia and morning sickness.

All over the country, expectant mothers were assured by doctors and chemists and advertisements that this drug was perfectly safe, for them and for their baby.

Even though in Australia at that time, there was no meaningful or worthwhile way of knowing if this was true.

There was no system for properly evaluating the safety of medicines.

And the terrible cruelty of thalidomide was that far from being safe.

Just one dose was enough to cause devastating harm.

Just one dose was enough to inflict a lifetime of damage on an unborn child, or indeed cause premature death, either in utero or in the early years.

A survivor named Patricia put it like this:

“Thalidomide is like tossing a stone into the water: it causes a ripple effect. The drug didn't just destroy me; it rippled onto my parents, my siblings, my family, my ambitions, my relationships, my jobs, my earnings, my health—my everything.”

Those ripples ran through lives around our nation. 

Bullying and teasing at school.

Trauma and sadness at home.

Exclusion and rejection when looking for work.

A constant battle against declining health and increasing need.

Hidden struggles and invisible pain.

The thousand different ways that ordinary tasks can be ordeals.

And mothers and fathers and families haunted by a lifetime of undeserved regret.

A regret that could never be reasoned away, because it was fuelled by that all-powerful all-consuming instinct every parent knows that inescapable sense of responsibility for your child’s health and happiness.

So let it be said today, and recorded for all time: these parents, these mothers, did nothing wrong.

These parents did not fail their children. The system failed them both.

Which is why, as so many survivors have requested: the Apology we offer today embraces and includes their parents and their families as well.

Mr Speaker, 

Today, on behalf of the people of Australia, our Government and this Parliament offers a full, unreserved and overdue apology to all thalidomide survivors, their families, loved ones and carers.

This apology takes in one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s medical history.

When expectant mothers, through no fault of their own, were exposed to a drug with devastating effects that were realised far too late.

To the survivors: we apologise for the pain thalidomide has inflicted on each and every one of you, each and every day.

We are sorry.

We are more sorry than we can say.

We are sorry for the harm and the hurt and the hardship you have endured.

We are sorry for all the cruelty you have had to bear.

We are sorry for all the opportunities you have been denied.

We are sorry for the battle you have had to fight – over decades - for fair support and due recognition.

And we are sorry that there are so many who deserved this apology, who have not lived to see this day.

We offer our respect to their memories, and we extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends.

To the mothers and fathers, today we apologise because you were failed too.

We are sorry you have endured decades of knowing your children’s lives are harder than they should have been.

We are sorry you have suffered your own hurt, even though what happened is not your fault and it never was.

We say sorry, not imagining that these words can resolve the anguish or remove the pain.

We understand an apology does not balance years of inaction and inadequate support.

We know the toll of thalidomide is still felt today, we know it will still be felt tomorrow.

We promise your legacy – and your example - will never be forgotten.

A National Apology was the first recommendation of the 2019 Senate Inquiry, chaired by former Senator Rachel Siewert.

I thank her and the other committee members from across Parliament for their important work.

I recognise the initiative taken by former Prime Minister Morrison and the support his government provided.

But without question, the heroes of those proceedings are the survivors and their families who shared their stories with such searing honesty.

The people who put, on the parliamentary record, a hard truth too long denied.

Their courage demands that at the heart of this national apology must be an acceptance of Australia’s moral responsibility.

So, today, as we express our sorrow and regret, we also acknowledge the inescapable historical facts. 

The fact that even after the grave dangers of this drug were known, importing thalidomide was not prohibited.

Selling it was not banned.

Products and samples in surgeries and shops were not comprehensively recalled or entirely destroyed.

Saying sorry does not excuse this, or erase it. 

There are no words that can undo what has been suffered.  

There is no sum of money that can square the ledger.

But our Australian commitment to a fair go for all, demands that we try.

That’s why the former Government established the Australian Thalidomide Survivors Support Program.

A lifetime support package which includes a one-off lump sum payment in recognition of pain and suffering, as well as ongoing annual payments.

To date, 148 survivors have received this support.

Today, I can confirm our Government is re-opening this program to ensure that anyone who may have missed the previous opportunity to apply does not miss out on the support they need and deserve.

Further to this, for all survivors who currently receive the annual, tax-exempt payment - and any new applicants who qualify for it.

I want to make it clear that from now on, rather than these payments being locked at a particular level, we will act to ensure that support increases through indexation.

One of the Australians who spoke to the inquiry was a woman named Mary.

In November 2018, she said:

“I wasn't really meant to live outside of infancy, and there have been many days throughout my life when I wish I hadn't.”

Imagine that.

And imagine what it takes to share those words with people you’ve never met.   

Mary was one of many survivors who requested a meaningful and public apology from Government.

She also spoke about a ‘lasting memorial’.

As the remarkable Lisa McManus put it:

“Permanent recognition in a place of prominence”.

A monument to acknowledge all those Australians who died prematurely.

To recognise the pain and suffering of survivors and their loved ones.  

And to stand as a tribute to their courage, resilience and perseverance.

A way for Australia to honour all they have endured.

Tomorrow, in Kings Park on the northern shore of Lake Burley Griffin the Minister for Health and Aged Care will formally dedicate the National Site of Recognition for Thalidomide Survivors and their Families.

It will offer a space for reflection and contemplation.

Along with a gateway of glass bricks, chosen by the artist to represent the ripple effect across lives.

And an information display that will tell the story to every visitor.

As survivors have requested, this will be much more than “a plaque in a park”.

It will be a prompt for our collective conscience, a call to our nation’s heart.

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 as Australians.

I conclude today by saying to the survivors, their families and loved ones, here with us and all of you watching or listening around the nation and even overseas.

The people of Australia are offering this apology to you.

And make no mistake, we are offering this apology because of you.

You deserved this apology.

And you made it happen.

Because you fought for what was right.
Because you spoke the hard truth, until it was heard.

Because you knew you deserved better.

And because you continued to demand better - from your government, your Parliament and your country.

For six decades you have had to carry this cause.

Now the challenge is on all of us here, to do better for you.

Together - I know we can, I know we must, I know we will.

I commend the National Apology to all Australians impacted by the Thalidomide Tragedy, to the House.