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Kristina Keneally: “My daughter’s death changed me forever”

The first female premier of NSW Kristina Keneally tells Samantha Trenoweth about the personal tragedy that’s become a public inquiry.
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This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Kristina Keneally dazzles like a splash of sunlight on water, standing there, in her kingfisher blue blazer, surrounded by the sombre tones and sensible suits of the federal Senate. This is her first speech as a NSW Senator and she begins with a message from her heart.

“Our daughter Caroline never drew breath,” she says resolutely, “but she changed me forever. She enlarged my understanding of love and loss, and she taught me to survive. She made me brave, almost fearless.”

Three months later, the 49-year-old former NSW Premier, Sky News presenter, South Sydney Rabbitohs supporter and mother of three – two sons (Daniel and Brendan) and a daughter (Caroline, who was stillborn) – has invited The Weekly for morning tea and an open-ended conversation about love and grief, faith and politics.

Kristina has not wasted a moment in the federal parliament. Within weeks of walking through its doors in February this year, she established an inquiry into stillbirth research and education. As she pointed out in that powerful first speech, the rate of stillbirths in Australia hasn’t shifted for two decades: 2200 babies are stillborn every year, six every day, and one of them was her own.

In March, Kristina Keneally delivered her maiden speech in the Australian Senate.

(Image: Getty Images)

Caroline was born in 1998. She was Kristina and her husband Ben’s second child. They had wanted two children, close together, who would grow up as friends. Daniel had arrived safely and Kristina had no sense that this pregnancy would be different.

“I was naive,” she says now. “I had all the confidence of a first-world woman” in the infallibility of modern medicine. Then Caroline was born and “I was blindsided,” she admits. “How could I not have thought this might happen?”

The weeks and months that followed were “excruciatingly awful” and 20 years later her voice still falters as she speaks.

WATCH: Stillbirths in Australia. Post continues after video…

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“The sense of grief, for mothers, is intense. You’ve had such an intimate connection to the baby. You have felt the baby kicking. You know the baby’s movements. It is something that has happened within you and then you go through the birth and all the processes that happen after any birth: your milk comes in; your body has to heal. Everything about you hormonally is geared towards looking after a baby but you don’t have one, and everything that is happening around you in a maternity ward is geared towards a baby too.”

A stillbirth can challenge even the strongest relationship but Ben steered a steady course.

“I feel very fortunate that Ben was able to support me through all the stages of grief while he was going through his own,” she says.

“I think, for dads, one of the real challenges is that they have to work through their own sense of loss but also deal with their partner’s suffering and, in our case, we also had a child at home who needed us. Daniel was just 14 months old.”

“I feel very fortunate that Ben was able to support me through all stages of grief.”

(Image: Getty Images)

It was a time in which friendships were both forged and broken.

“People find it hard to talk about, friends with children don’t know how to react or be around you. It’s a grief that can be… I don’t think society does well with grief anyway…”

There were other friends, though, who drew closer. Ben’s parents and siblings and the extended Keneally clan “were wonderful” and Kristina’s mother, Catherine, flew in from America, which was a godsend.

That warm Midwest-coloured accent paints Kristina as an American blow-in but she is, in fact, “both a seventh generation Australian and a migrant”. Her Irish ancestors arrived here in the 1850s and a Swedish forebear jumped ship in 1884. Kristina’s grandmother moved from Queensland to the US as the young wife of an American serviceman.

“We only get so many days on this Earth and I want to be helpful to people.”

(Image: Supplied)

“My grandmother used to tell us stories,” Kristina recalls, “about eating mulberries on the way home from school. Cathy, my cousin from Brisbane, was my pen pal and my great-grandmother was still alive and living on Mount Tambourine, and she would send us gifts. I’ve got a Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary wallet. She sent us a Storm Boy book. So I was this funny little American kid growing up with these random bits of Australiana.”

Kristina grew up in Toledo, Ohio – also feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem’s hometown. She was a tomboy.

“My mother attempted to enrol me in ballet and it lasted all of one lesson. Then my father signed me up for soccer and I discovered the joy of kicking the ball and running into people and getting sweaty and dirty. I’m very grateful for that and in many ways it shaped me. It gave me a sense of confidence in who I am and my physicality. It taught me to be assertive, to stand my ground, to attack, to defend, to work in a team, to set goals and achieve them.”

Senator Keneally grew up in a devout Catholic family in the US.

(Image: Getty Images)

Her family was also devoutly Catholic and she developed a finely tuned social conscience and an understanding of service from her parents and from the nuns at school.

“My parents instilled in me a sense that, if you see something that is unjust, you should stand up to it – very much a sense that we are all responsible for the world in which we live – and they modelled that in their everyday lives.”

“My mother was a schoolteacher but she spent a lot of time volunteering and she would take my brother and me along. We visited children with profound disabilities. She would read them stories and we would play games with them. Our local parish took on a Vietnamese refugee family and my mother taught them English. So it was that sense of roll up your sleeves, pitch in, get involved, give of yourself.”

The former NSW premier was a regular on the campaign trail with Bill Shorten during the 2019 Federal Election.

(Image: Getty Images)

At university, Kristina studied politics and religion and contemplated a career in political journalism. But by the time she left university, she had decided to become a theologian and advocate for gender equality and other liberal ideas within Catholicism.

“I’ve been arguing with the Catholic Church about women since I was eight years old and I went on a crusade to become an altar girl,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I openly disagreed with the Church’s position on same-sex marriage, artificial contraception, divorce.”

Kristina is also a vocal critic of the Church’s handling of sexual abuse. “I believe,” she insists, “that if women and parents had been involved in receiving the complaints and making decisions about how to act upon them, we would not have had the same response from the Church, which was to act in the best interests of the institution, not the victims.”

Senator Keneally attends World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008.

(Image: Getty Images)

Yet, in spite of the disagreements, Kristina maintains, there has always been “enough there to keep me in the fold… I have a stubbornness that says the Church is not the Vatican, the Church is not the bishops. The Church is the whole of the people of God and I’m not going to walk away from that just because some celibate men in white robes think they’ve got a stranglehold on it … What sits at the core of my faith is a belief in the Gospels and in Jesus, who said to look after the poor, to look after those who are oppressed. That’s what inspires me as a Christian.”

It was the Church that brought Kristina and Ben together. She was 22 and he was 20 when they met at the World Youth Congress in Poland in 1991.

“We were young,” she says, “and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I remember the moment I first saw him. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight but it was an instant recognition that this was somebody who was going to be important in my life. It was across a crowded room and, yes, I thought he was attractive, but there was something about him that was compelling too.”

Senator Keneally and husband Ben have been together for 27 years.

(Image: Getty Images)

There were shared values around politics and social justice, and a shared faith, and Ben was Australian, which was both a pro and a con. Kristina was living in a remote part of New Mexico, teaching at an underfunded, underprivileged school.

“This was before the internet,” she explains. “I didn’t even have a phone in my house. If that happened today, you’d be texting and Facebooking. Instead, I have shoeboxes of letters in my storage cupboard. We fell in love by writing letters and that was a very special way to do it. Then, after a few years and a couple of visits back and forth, we decided that one of us needed to move.”

The pair married in 1996, settled in Sydney and began their family. Kristina worked as NSW Youth Co-ordinator for the St Vincent de Paul Society and volunteered for the ALP. Marriage, family, a career in the Church – life was going pretty much according to plan – until 1998, when Caroline’s death changed everything. Most crucially, it “fundamentally challenged” Kristina’s belief in God and led to months of despair.

With Bill Shorten and Sam Crosby in the lead up to the 2018 election.

(Image: Getty Images)

Then, she remembers, one day, out of that despair, her understanding of God shifted and she began to heal.

“I was sitting there and I thought, hang on, if I really believe that God is just as much a mother as a father, if I believe that we are all created, female and male, in the image and likeness of God [this was the subject of her Masters thesis] then, from a Christian perspective, God is a mother whose child died on the cross, so God understands my suffering. That helped a great deal. It didn’t instantly make everything easier but it changed my view of how I would live my life, and that was profound. It gave me a sense of urgency – an understanding that we only get so many days on this Earth – and I wanted to be practical and useful and helpful to people for as long as I’m here.”

WATCH: Bill Shorten talks about his mum on Q&A. Post continues after video…

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Kristina and Ben decided to try for another child. The pregnancy was fraught with worry and, she says, “I don’t think I really breathed easy until Brendan was born,” but he was born, safe and sound, in 2000.

Kristina spent three years at home with her boys before running for Labor preselection in the NSW seat of Heffron. Four years later, she was appointed Minister for Ageing and Disability Services, then Infrastructure.

In 2009, she became the state’s first female Premier, inheriting a government that was already mired deep in scandal and allegations of corruption. Political commentator Jana Wendt wrote in The Monthly that Kristina had been selected to front “a horror show”. She stepped away from state politics in 2012 after the party’s crushing electoral defeat (the worst in NSW history) and said she felt her political “race was run”.

Senator Keneally, with the Duke of Cambridge, in January 2010 while she was Premier of New South Wales.

(Image: Getty Images)

Then, last year, Bill Shorten approached Kristina to contest the federal seat of Bennelong. A spirited campaign gained Labor some ground but not enough and instead she replaced Sam Dastyari in the Senate.

With a cohort of 61 per cent female Labor Senators, perhaps she has finally found an environment in which she can do that practical and useful work to which God and her political conscience have called her. Certainly, there was a sense of that in the chamber as Kristina introduced her proposal for the stillbirth inquiry, which met with very close to unanimous approval. She hopes the inquiry will hear from doctors, midwives and researchers, but would like it to hear resoundingly from parents too because “the biggest challenge with stillbirth is silence,” she says, and every experience is important.

“We have viewed stillbirth as a private tragedy rather than a public health problem, so we don’t talk about it and we don’t prioritise it in terms of research and funding,” she says. “Most stillbirth research in Australia is funded by the families and friends of stillborn babies. There’s a small amount of money from the federal government but virtually no corporate support, no ongoing commitment, no national goal or plan to get there.”

Senator Keneally has campaigned for more support from the federal government for stillbirth research.

(Image: Getty Images)

There is an obvious comparison to be made with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which, she explains, “was once viewed in a similar way but then there was a lot of public discussion, a focus on research and an education campaign. And what have we seen? An 85 per cent drop in the incidence of SIDS.”

Kristina hopes that this inquiry will be the first step in a similar process for stillbirth research and education in Australia. “There are other very similar countries which have lower stillbirth rates than we do,” she stresses. “We need to understand why and we need to turn this around.”

For information and support around stillbirth, contact: Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Newborn Death Support (SANDS) on 1300 072 637.

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