PM issues ‘overdue’ apology to thalidomide survivors

Andrew Brown |

Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus wants greater support for those affected by the drug.
Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus wants greater support for those affected by the drug.

Anthony Albanese has offered an “unreserved and overdue” apology to survivors of thalidomide, saying governments have let down those affected by the drug.

Marking 62 years to the day the morning sickness drug for pregnant women was withdrawn from sale in Australia because of causing birth defects, Mr Albanese apologised to the survivors of the pharmaceutical disaster.

“We understand an apology does not balance years of inaction and inadequate support. We know the toll of thalidomide is still felt today,” the prime minister told parliament on Wednesday.

“These parents, these mothers did nothing wrong. These parents did not fail their children. The system failed them both.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese said survivors of thalidomide had been let down for decades by federal governments. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

The prime minister used the apology to announce the government would reopen a support program for survivors and that annual support payments would be indexed.

Survivors had been urging the government to reopen eligibility for the support scheme.

A national apology was a key recommendation of a Senate inquiry into thalidomide in 2019.

While there are 146 known registered survivors in Australia, the exact number affected by thalidomide is unknown.

Mr Albanese said survivors had been let down over the decades by successive federal governments.

“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,” he said.

“You have been survivors from the day you were born. More than that, you have been advocates, organisers, champions and warriors.”

The Senate report found if the government at the time had acted more quickly when thalidomide was linked to birth defects, 20 per cent of survivors may not have been affected.

In November 1961, when the link was established, federal and state governments took no action to ban the importation or sale of the drug.

“For six decades, (survivors) have had to carry this course. Now, the challenge is on all of us here to do better for you,” Mr Albanese said.

“Together, I know we can, I know we must, I know we will.”

Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus
Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus wants greater support for those affected by the drug. (HANDOUT/LISA MCMANUS)

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton endorsed the apology in a speech to parliament.

“It’s an apology that should have been made long ago without your repeated asking,” he said.

“We make this national apology as an expression of a historical dereliction of duty, an affirmation of a recognition of responsibility, as a proclamation of a profound sense of regret.”

A minute’s silence was also held in the House of Representatives in memory of the victims of thalidomide.

Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus, who is also the director of Thalidomide Group Australia, said the national apology was significant.

“It seemed like a very heartfelt apology from both sides, which is really what we’ve been wanting,” she told reporters.

“There was lots of recognition about the failures that have happened, and that’s something that we’ve just never heard before.”

Ms McManus said the reopening of the support scheme was a welcome step.

“This has been a long and arduous battle, and one that should never needed to to happen, and one that I certainly didn’t believe that would be left for me to fight,” she said.

A national site of recognition of thalidomide survivors will be unveiled on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra on Thursday.