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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1204


Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (20:25): The issue of the establishment of a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has been something upon which the community have been campaigning for decades. Report after report would be published. Our friends and colleagues would come to harm and would die, and their names would be listed. We, as disabled people, would attend funeral after funeral and weep together with the small consolation that, at some point in the future, the story would be told and we would have an opportunity to speak our truth and be heard.

The effort to bring this into being took the combined might of over 60 organisations across Australia campaigning relentlessly for half a decade. I want to pay tribute also to Senator Rachel Siewert, who is in the chamber tonight, for the work that she did over all of those years to help that campaign go forward. Finally, earlier this year, we succeeded together. It is one of the great honours of my life to have been able to sit shoulder to shoulder with disabled people as we descended upon this place and forced the major parties to listen to the urgent need for justice. It was a moment of profound joy and relief to think that, upon the announcement of that royal commission, my community—the four million of us across Australia—now held within our tired, blistered hands the tool with which we may liberate ourselves from the darkness of abuse that has been in our lives for so long and that is in our lives still.

That joy so quickly turned to frustration and anger as we realised that a government who had promised us consultation on the appointment of those who would lead the investigation had, in fact, appointed people to that process who had significant and unmanageable conflicts of interest and who had previously occupied senior roles in the very systems and bureaucracies that had failed, despite their good intentions, and led us to harm and led us to death. We were stunned. We couldn't believe it. At the very moment where we thought that justice was at hand and where we could breathe freely in the knowledge that there was a process now to take on this work and that the efforts wouldn't just be ours to move forward, we were made to fight again as we realised that the integrity of this process, and our ability to trust it, had been put in jeopardy. But we are disabled people, and, if we are used to one thing, we are used to fighting to be heard, and so fight we did, and fight we have. We came back together and the very organisations who had called for a royal commission, who had celebrated its establishment, now called again, one week today, for the removal of John Ryan and Barbara Bennett. Friends and colleagues from all over the country called ministers, called journalists and sounded the alarm. A friend of mine from Western Australia was making calls last night from her hospital bed. This has been a week of high emotion for my community, and I am not immune to that emotion nor that frustration.

John Ryan, in his role as former director of contemporary residential options for the New South Wales Department of Community Services, was indeed responsible for a program designed to support disabled people to exit large institutional settings that were often the place of their abuse. This program had many successes and many people were successfully removed from these settings. However, this program also experienced profound failures. As is clearly outlined in a New South Wales Ombudsman report into preventable deaths, two individuals passed away and a third was seriously injured due to dehydration after participating in that program.

In my attempt to draw attention to this issue, to highlight the broader conflict of interest that Mr Ryan has as a long-serving public servant in New South Wales, I have twice now incorrectly named the individuals involved in that process, both in the media and in this chamber. For those mistakes, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise. In public life, I believe that when you make a mistake, you listen and you own it. And after a week of Australia's peak bodies for disability calling for action, it is listening that this government must now do, because the realities of these conflicts of interest are not going away. They cannot be swept under the carpet or brushed aside as insignificant.

Disabled people, our organisations, our advocates and our supporters won't be silent anymore. Our lives have been shaped by institutional failures and the unwillingness of the others to listen when we speak. As inconvenient as it may be for some in place who want to get on with other things that they feel are more important, the disability community alongside the Greens, the Labor Party and the crossbench will continue to fight for the royal commission that we know disabled people need, not the one politicians and bureaucrats think we should have. I thank the chamber for its time.