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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability

Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability


CHAIR: Welcome. Before we get started, I might just remind committee members that this is an opportunity to ask questions relating to the organisational arrangements, the funding, the staffing and so forth of the royal commission. It is not appropriate to delve into the substance of the matters that are being dealt with by the royal commission, given the potential for overlap there. I will be quite firm on efforts to go in that direction. Ms Pirani, would you like to give an opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Pirani : Yes, I would like to make a short statement. Senators would be aware that the letters patent establishing the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability were issued by the Governor-General in April this year. On 16 September this year the royal commission held its first public sitting in Brisbane. During the sitting the commission provided insight into its establishment and how it will proceed with its inquiry. The full video and transcripts are available on our website, along with a summary that has also been produced—in Easyread, for accessibility purposes.

We are currently emerging from our establishment phase in a strong position. We now have seven commissioners, seven counsel assisting, four special advisers and 105 staff across the three locations of Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra. We will be holding our first hearing from 4 to 7 November in Townsville. The focus of this hearing will be inclusive education. This hearing will be conducted by Dr Kerri Mellifont, QC, who was appointed to the royal commission ahead of its first public sitting. Dr Mellifont is Queen's Counsel at the Queensland bar, with a broad range of legal experience, including appearing before a number of commissions of inquiry. Dr Mellifont was one of the senior counsel assisting the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry in 2011.

The second hearing is expected to be held in Melbourne in December. The focus of this hearing will be accommodation, including group homes. It will be conducted by Ms Kate Eastman, SC. Ms Eastman is working closely with Dr Mellifont, and they are supported by a number of experienced junior counsel. Ms Eastman is counsel assisting at the New South Wales Bar Association, and has a distinguished legal career working in human rights, equality and discrimination law, among other areas of the law. She has appeared as counsel in many disability discrimination cases. Among other positions, she is the chair of the Law Council of Australia Equalising Opportunity Committee. Work is underway on preparing a schedule of hearings for 2020.

We have also developed an extensive research program, and a number of projects are well underway. These include an analysis of the remarkable number of existing reports of official inquiries relating to people with disability. This is required by our terms of reference. We are also compiling available statistical data bearing on the nature and extent of violence, abuse and exploitation experienced by people with disability and a survey of the legal framework governing the rights of people with disability, incorporating an assessment of the extent to which Australia has yet to implement the rights of people with disability recognised by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In relation to engagement, the royal commission opened its submission process on Monday 29 July 2019, and had received 177 submissions as of close of business last Friday. Our information line has received more than 600 calls since it was established on 29 July. We have also received more than 900 inquiries via email. Our official website has been viewed 185,388 times, and its mailing list has 3,561 subscribers. We have held a successful community forum in Townsville, which contributed to the decision to hold the first hearing in this location, commencing 4 November. Further community forums will be held around Australia in both regional and metropolitan centres, with the next forums to be held in Adelaide, Gawler and Hobart in November.

Commissioners have held nine workshops with stakeholders, including two with First Nations people in Darwin and in Sydney. The workshops have generated useful discussions in areas such as the justice system, education and issues specific to First Nations people, who are a particular focus of the commission. We are planning to develop issues papers on particular topics to generate submissions that will inform any future workshops.

The commission is committed to ensuring all our processes and engagements with the public are trauma informed. Having appropriate advocacy, counselling and legal supports in place for people who have experienced violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation is essential. We are pleased to see the National Counselling and Referral Service has commenced operations. The service, being delivered by the Blue Knot Foundation, offers free counselling support for people with disability, their families and carers, and anyone affected by the disability royal commission.

Witnesses and attendees at our first hearing will also be supported by our internal counselling and support team, which includes social workers and counsellors. Witnesses called to appear at the first hearing will be provided with separate legal representation through the Legal Financial Assistance Scheme operated by the Attorney-General's Department.

The disability royal commission's draft accessibility strategy states the principles that will guide the royal commission in its engagement with people with disability. It commits the royal commission to putting people with disability first in everything we do, and explains how this objective will be achieved. It is important that this strategy is led by the needs of our stakeholders in terms of how they would like us to engage with them. A draft strategy was made available for public consultation, and comments on that draft strategy are currently being incorporated. The strategy will be made available on the royal commission's website once finalised. It will be reviewed and updated periodically as a result of ongoing feedback throughout the duration of the commission.

In conclusion, commissioners remain extremely mindful of the critical function that they have been tasked to perform on behalf of those people with disability who have experienced injustice. We are dedicated to undertaking our work with integrity and in a way that is appropriately inclusive and accessible to all stakeholders. Thank you, I hope that this overview has been very useful for you.

Senator WALSH: Thanks, Ms Pirani, for your opening statement. You outlined there the schedule of public hearings that are coming up. I think you held your first public sitting on 16 September. At around the same time on that day there were a number of media reports about the potential for advocates and people with disability to threaten to boycott the commission process. Do you recall those media reports?

Ms Pirani : I do.

Senator WALSH: Those reports were around the potential for a conflict of interest for two of the commissioners in particular—John Ryan and Barbara Bennett—both of whom have held roles in the management of some of the programs that may be under investigation by the royal commission. Is that a fair characterisation of the media reports and the concerns?

Ms Pirani : That is a fair characterisation of the concerns.

Senator WALSH: Have you received complaints about commissioners Ryan and Bennett remaining as commissioners? And, if so, how many complaints have you received?

Ms Pirani : I'm not sure if we have received particular specific complaints in relation to them. I'd have to take that on notice and analyse the calls that we've received. But nothing springs to mind—it hasn't been an overwhelming theme that's leapt out for us.

Senator WALSH: If you could take that on notice, that would be great.

Ms Pirani : We can certainly take that on notice and get you some details.

Senator WALSH: In a similar vein, have you heard from people—perhaps a more general way of putting the question—that they will boycott the royal commission as a result of those appointments?

Ms Pirani : We're aware of the media reports and we're also very aware that it's very important that the commission has the confidence of the public, because we've got very important responsibilities and we are very keen that the commission will operate independently, be thorough and operate transparently. The chair of the commission has actually made a statement, which is available on the commission's website, which sets out in some detail how the commission proposes to deal with conflicts of interest that can arise for any commissioner sitting on a royal commission. We have well-established procedures around how those will be managed. The chair of the commission is a very experienced judicial officer—he's been a judge for many years—and he is very confident of his ability to manage conflicts of interest. The act itself gives the chair powers to decide who does and does not sit on a particular hearing that's being held by the commission, and he will determine who will be authorised to participate in any hearing.

Senator WALSH: Sorry, I'll just cut you off. You're being very helpful in giving me a very detailed answer there, but I am just wondering if people have got in touch with the royal commission to let you know that they intend to boycott and, if so, how many?

Ms Pirani : As I said, I would have to take that question on notice, but—

Senator WALSH: That's okay, you're entitled to do that.

Ms Pirani : it hasn't been a big thing.

Senator WALSH: You mentioned in your opening statement that this commission is all about putting people with disabilities first, and there's a lot of work going into the processes and making it accessible and facilitating people and providing support. You started to go into how the chair intends to deal with potential conflict of interest, in relation to these commissioners. I guess, whether the chair regards that there's a conflict of interest or not, it does seem that there are a number of people with disabilities and their advocates who do think that there's a conflict of interest. That seems to mean that some people won't participate in the royal commission process. Do you think that's a real possibility, and what do you think should be done about that?

Ms Pirani : I think if you have a look at the material that's available on our website, each of the commissioners—not just the two that you've mentioned, but each of our commissioners—have published their conflict-of-interest statements on our website. It is something that will have to be managed throughout the commission, for all of the commissioners, and they're all very well aware of their obligations in that regard. In terms of people engaging with the commission, we do have quite some time to run. We're also aware that, for a range of reasons, we will need to really build trust with the community before they will be willing to come forward and engage with us and tell us about the terrible things that have happened to them.

The sorts of measures that I was talking about in my opening statement are the sorts of things that we are doing to try and build trust with the community and build trust with people with disability, their carers and their advocates, in order to make them aware that we are an organisation that they can trust and that they can come forward and talk to, and we will continue to develop those measures, going forward. We don't take that for granted.

Senator WALSH: I'm advised that there are over 50 disability organisations who have called for Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett to reconsider their positions, which seems like a significant number. Is it your evidence that you're not concerned that these appointments will provide a barrier to people participating in the royal commission?

Ms Pirani : The commissioners have all participated in a range of different workshops with different stakeholders, including many of the organisations that raised those concerns. I'm certainly confident that as an organisation we can build trust with those organisations, going forward. I don't see it as a barrier at this stage. We will keep an eye on it, obviously, and continue to put measures in place to make sure that it doesn't become a barrier.

Senator WALSH: You've mentioned some of those measures and that there's been some material published on the website. Can I ask how it is that you intend to deal with it, if programs that Ms Bennett or Mr Ryan oversaw at a certain time do come under discussion?

Ms Pirani : Yes. The conflict statement that's published on our website explains that under no circumstances would a commissioner participate in a hearing or in deliberations concerning any matter that might bear, in any way, on what they've done in the past or anything that they've done in a previous role. So the chair would not authorise a commissioner in that situation to sit on the inquiry being heard. And a commissioner who is not participating in a particular public hearing also would not participate in the making of any recommendations or report arising out of that deliberation. As I said, that information is publicly available on our website.

Senator WALSH: Just a final question from me: I'm interested in whether anyone from the government has had contact with the chair of the royal commission—and it's maybe a question that you'll need to take on notice—about Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett and about their positions. In particular, I'd like to know whether anyone from the Prime Minister's office or the Prime Minister himself has had contact with the chair about those two positions.

Ms Pirani : That would probably be a question best addressed to PM&C. I don't know.

Senator WALSH: Minister, is that a question that you're able to answer?

Senator Payne: No, I can't answer the question, but I'll take it on notice.

Senator WALSH: Thank you.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Ms Pirani, let me start by thanking you for your time a couple of days ago in relation to a lot of these questions. It's shortened the amount of time we'll spend together this evening! So that's great. We're probably going to be doing this for about three years, and it was a great way to start it off. I want to first take you to a couple of bits and pieces referenced on the commission's website, to get a bit of further clarification, if I could. Your website, in relation to legal services currently available to witnesses wishing to make a submission, refers to a hotline which is being run by National Legal Aid, which informs you that you're able to ring to access 'basic information, assistance and referrals'. It then goes on to say that you can register your interest in 'a full range of legal services' which will be available soon prior to the commencement of hearings. Given that, I'm just wondering whether you can confirm for me that the hotline is currently the only legal support available to participants that is provided by the commission and the full range of legal services referenced there have not yet been rolled out.

Ms Pirani : There are two different layers of assistance for legal assistance. One is the general hotline, if you like, that has been established with National Legal Aid. That's offered to people broadly who may wish to engage with the commission. The other category is where the commission invites a person to come to give a statement to the commission or to appear as a witness. In those cases, those witnesses can access the legal assistance scheme that's provided through the Attorney-General's Department.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I am aware of that, yes. What I'm referring to there, though, is your reference to a full range of services which will be available soon, which leads me to believe—perhaps wrongly—that there are additional services that will be rolled out in that first category.

Ms Pirani : In that first category—I'd probably ask the department to answer that question about the progress on those services.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Thank you.

Ms Hermann : To coincide with the first public hearing of the disability royal commission on 16 September, the service established the hotline that you speak of. As at 18 October, that helpline has received 158 calls, and 124 people have registered their interest in accessing legal advice. In the week commencing 14 October the service commenced contacting clients registered to commence receiving that legal advice. Two clients have now received legal advice from that service, and there are a further five clients who are booked in to receive advice this week. At the moment the service is triaging the remainder of the clients registered for legal advice to arrange for them to have advice sessions. The reason they're triaging at the moment is that they're in the process of recruiting, and we want to make sure that they're recruiting the most appropriate staff—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Of course.

Ms Hermann : to deliver those services.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Just to clarify, then, when you refer on the website—I'm not sure whose responsibility the website is—but when you refer to those range of services being available soon, what exactly is being referred to there?

Ms Hermann : The services that that particular service will provide are our national legal advice service that people that want to engage with the royal commission—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And that currently exists now?

Ms Hermann : They are in the process of scaling up. At the moment they are in the process of recruiting staff nationally to be able to deliver that service. At the moment it's what we would call a limited service while they recruit.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you've set up the waiting room, and you're just waiting to hire the actual people that would participate.

Ms Hermann : I wouldn't say the waiting room is set up, because they have commenced providing those legal services. They are undertaking a triage model at the moment. For example, with the hearing coming up in Townsville they are prioritising people that will be engaging.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: But you are saying that there are more people to hire before that service is fully set up.

Ms Hermann : Absolutely.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And that's what's being referred to when we talk about 'will soon be available'.

Ms Hermann : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: It's not at full scale yet.

Ms Hermann : Exactly.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Fantastic. Do you have a date for when that will be at scale?

Ms Hermann : We are hoping that in the next six to eight weeks that service will be at full scale.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Fantastic. That is my first question done. Staying on the website, can I take you to the question of emotional and counselling support. I thank you for detailing some of that already in your opening statement, Ms Pirani. For people willing to make submissions to the commission, as you've said, you've given us the national counselling and referral service that will be led by Beyond Blue on behalf of the commission. That commenced on 17 October—is that correct?

Ms Pirani : Yes, that is correct. Last week.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Fantastic. Can you confirm that at this time this phone based service is the only emotional support service available to participants, their families and carers and those affected by the commission outside of those specific supports which I understand you will be providing to folks that are actually giving evidence before the hearing?

Ms Pirani : I might get Ms Carey to answer that question in more detail.

Ms Carey : We do have an internal counselling and support services team that also have been providing support to people engaging with the commission, including through our hotline. They have been acting as a referral point for people experiencing distress or with complex issues.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: What's the name of that team?

Ms Carey : The counselling and support services team.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And that's within the AG's department?

Ms Carey : No, that's within the royal commission.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: How many folks are there? How many FTE?

Ms Carey : We have two in Sydney and three in Brisbane at the moment, but we are upscaling. Eventually we hope to have nine in total.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: How do those services interact with what Blue Knot is doing?

Ms Carey : We provide immediate support to people engaging with the commission. Blue Knot will offer a really critical complementary service for people, especially people with more medium-term needs and with more complex characteristics. For people who have those really complex needs, up until Blue Knot coming on board we've been holding those cases internally. Now that Blue Knot has come on board, we are in the process of referring some of those cases through to Blue Knot for that more complex support.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Again, still phone based, or in person?

Ms Carey : Phone based.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And your aspiration is for nine?

Ms Carey : Our aspiration is for nine, yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: When do you hope to be at nine?

Ms Carey : We are actively recruiting at the moment. We have five on board at the moment, two that are coming on board, and hoping for a further two to three.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you are not planning on providing in-person counselling support?

Ms Carey : There will be an element of in-person counselling for witnesses as part of the support provided to them at hearings. When private sessions start, there will be an element of in-person support provided to people participating in those private sessions before, during and after the private sessions. We also have members of our counselling and support services team that attend our community forums, for example, and other engagement activities as required to make sure that people in those forums, if they do start experiencing distress, have someone to talk to.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: But from a trauma informed perspective, I'm just trying to clarify—at the moment there is no structure if I experience a breakdown, which is totally reasonable in the context, due to making a submission. There's no way for me to access in-person counselling.

Ms Carey : Not through the royal commission service. I understand that the aspiration is for Blue Knot to provide face-to-face services in the future, but questions around that would have to go to DSS.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Of course there are the time constraints, which I understand are nine to five, weekends and public holidays.

Ms Carey : In terms of support services, or—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Both.

Ms Carey : I couldn't answer for DSS. In terms of our support services, yes, we are restricted to normal business hours of operation. I would add that we have put in place referral pathways with outside agencies. We have had arrangements put in place with Beyond Blue and Lifeline for people who we are concerned about, and we have referred people through those processes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: In relation to confidential submissions, who can tell me when it will be possible to make them?

Ms Pirani : We would hope by later this year, but we are working through some of the issues on confidential submissions.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And not currently available now?

Ms Pirani : No, although we are not publishing our submissions yet either. We don't guarantee a level of confidentiality, but we are also not publishing them.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I understand. Could you quickly give us a picture of the protections currently in place for whistleblowers who might be appearing before the commission or indeed seeking to give evidence?

Ms Pirani : That is probably starting to go a little bit into the substance of how the commission might want to conduct its inquiry.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Of course. Could I rephrase that? Is there a pathway for whistleblowers to give evidence to the commission?

Ms Pirani : I think it would be fair to say at the moment that there is not a clear one, but it's certainly something we would be mindful of.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Is there a timeline for when there might be a clear pathway?

Ms Pirani : Hopefully by later in the year.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Can I also confirm, in relation to the Disability Access and Inclusion Strategy to which you referred earlier, that currently we do not have a finalised document published on the website?

Ms Pirani : No, we do not have a finalised document. I would hope it would be available within the next couple of weeks. It's very close. In the meantime we'd be relying on the draft one, which, as you'd be aware, is quite well developed.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Of course. Could you also confirm for me that Michael Fordham and Chris Ronalds are no longer counsel assisting for the commission?

Ms Pirani : They have both returned their briefs, so they are not working for the commission.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Resigned, yes. Thank you. Given some of the answers to those questions, I am going to turn to the question of the upcoming hearing in Townsville to which you referred. That was announced yesterday as being from 4 to 7 November. That's correct, isn't it?

Ms Pirani: That's correct.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Fantastic. You've given us a bit of a picture of a commission scaling, I think, and you've also confirmed for me the absence of two senior legal minds in the commission. It does leave me a little bit concerned about the time line the commission has set out for its first hearing. However, in these things, I always try to defer to the views of organisations who have spent a very long time representing disabled people. Before the announcement of the hearing date, of 4 to 7 November, did disability orgs reach out to the commission and echo or add any concerns around that date?

Ms Pirani: We are certainly aware that organisations did express some concerns about the date and that they thought, perhaps, it was a bit soon. The commission has been operating since April, so we've been setting up for about six months. We've run a successful first sitting in Brisbane, and I think we are very confident that we are ready to conduct our first hearing.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So organisations did reach out to the commission.

Ms Pirani: Yes. We're certainly aware of the concerns.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Which organisations?

Ms Pirani: I might get Ms Carey to answer that.

Ms Carey : I would have to take it on notice just to ensure that I can give you a proper answer. There were a few organisations. I don't have the correspondence with me, but I would want to make sure that I get the right ones.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Do you know whether the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations were among those correspondents?

Ms Carey : I don't recall them being amongst the correspondents, but, again, that's why I'd like to check.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Can you give me an idea of the concerns that they raised in their correspondence with you?

Ms Carey : The concerns have been mainly centred around the timing of counselling and support services that are being funded externally through DSS and advocacy services and the legal advice services. The concerns are really around those three areas.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Were there additional concerns raised to those three areas?

Ms Carey : My recollection is those were the particular concerns raised.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So they corresponded with you. Did they interact with the commission in any other way, other than a piece of correspondence?

Ms Carey : I've spoken to a couple of organisations as well.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Has the chair engaged with those organisations?

Ms Carey : I would need to take that on notice.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Could you also take on notice as to whether any meetings between the organisations and the chair took place?

Ms Carey : In relation, specifically, to the timing of the forum?

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Yes, indeed.

Ms Carey : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Was the timing flagged with organisations before the announcement was made?

Ms Carey : There was a workshop held specifically in relation to education, and the timing of the hearing was flagged during that workshop. A number of organisations and experts in the area of education were present there.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: At that forum, did they flood concerns?

Ms Carey : I can't recall any concerns being flagged specifically at the forum, but I would need to review the transcript.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Thank you very much. You seem to have told me that you have legal and emotional supports that are currently scaling but not at scale. You've also told me that you have an accessibility strategy that is in formation but not finalised. You've told me that two senior legal figures have handed in their briefs. You have also told me that organisations representing disabled people have flagged concerns, in relation to this time line. All of these things lead me to ask the question: on what basis did the commission make the decision to hold its hearing in the time line that you have outlined?

Ms Pirani : As I said, I think the commission is confident that the issues that have been raised are ones that can be resolved in time for the first hearing, with the fact that we have the legal advice service that is providing legal advice to people focusing on this area of the first hearing and the fact that witnesses who will appear at that hearing will have separate legal representation. The counsel that we have appointed have been appointed for some time. They're very experienced. They're very well advanced in their preparation for the hearing. The commission is very confident that we are ready to go ahead and conduct the hearings.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So you don't feel that the warnings given to you by the disability sector—and I'll just read the names of these organisations: Disabled People's Organisations of Australia, Disability Advocacy Network Australia, Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Children and Young People with Disability Australia and VALID. I believe these concerns are also backed up by All Means All and the Independent Advocacy association of Queensland—that is, the people that you will be working with in the execution of this commission. Basically the entirety of the disability sector flagged with the commission on 8 September—this is in a letter to Chair Sackville—that they had:

… express concerns regarding the opening of public consultations and hearings of the royal commission prior to adequate supports and safeguards being put in place for people with disability. We respectfully request the opportunity to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss our concerns in detail.

They go on to add, quite rightly, that not a single one of their organisations had yet received a penny in their bank account to do any advocacy or support around the royal commission. So this is the entirety of the sector, again, telling the commission not to do something, and it would appear to me that you have charged ahead and done it anyway. Do the concerns of these organisations not raise significant red flags in your mind?

Ms Pirani : We've certainly had regard to the concerns that have been raised. As you note, that letter dated 8 September—that's about six weeks ago—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: These views haven't changed.

Ms Pirani : That may be the case, but we've certainly seen a lot of things develop very significantly since that time, including the Blue Knot service being operational, the legal advice services being operational. The issue that you raise in relation to the funding for the advocacy services—

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Has not been resolved.

Ms Pirani : is not something that we can comment on. It would be something best addressed with the Department of Social Services.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Okay. I'll just leave you with the closing statement from the letter, which is:

At this time, we are advising people not to engage with the commission until the processes of supports are available.

They have asked you specifically not to go ahead with this time frame, in the spirit of putting disabled people at the centre of everything the commission does. It is not a good look, folks.

Ms Pirani : I'm happy to pass your concerns on to the commissioners, Senator.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Abso-bloody-lutely.

Ms Pirani : But ultimately it is a decision for the commissioners.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: It is indeed.

Senator HENDERSON: Ms Pirani, I want to begin by saying that I was the assistant minister for disability services at the time that the royal commission was announced and I'm absolutely delighted that the government has committed so substantially to this royal commission and made such a substantial financial commitment, of $527.9 million. I contrast this with the commitment initially made by Labor, which was for a disability royal commission with funding of $26 million. What's your opinion of that $26 million commitment? Have you spent that already? Would that have done the job? Clearly, given what the government has now committed, it was very much under measure.

Ms Pirani : I can certainly give you a figure for what the commission has spent so far. In combined operational costs and capital costs to the end of September the commission has spent $11.1 million. We are certainly very well resourced.

Senator HENDERSON: So it's fair to say that $26 million would not have done the job?

Ms Pirani : It would have been a very different commission.

Senator HENDERSON: Could you perhaps just inform the committee about the scope of the work, given the very substantial financial commitment to the royal commission and obviously your objectives over the next three years?

Ms Pirani : Yes. As I outlined in the opening statement, we are very focused on ensuring that the commission is accessible to all. That has led us to do a number of things very differently to the way other commissions have been able to operate, like ensuring that our premises are fully accessible, ensuring that the places where we choose to have public forums, workshops and hearings are fully accessible, making sure that we are able to translate documentation into easy-read formats, having Auslan interpreters at all of our events and the level of support and counselling that we have put in place to ensure that people can engage with us.

Senator HENDERSON: Could you provide a little bit more detail in relation to the funding commitment to support those seeking legal advice and also advocacy supports that are being provided through the Department of Social Services.

Ms Pirani : I don't have those figures. That would probably be information best obtained from DSS. The Attorney-General's Department could probably elaborate on the investment in relation to the legal advice service.

Senator HENDERSON: I've got some figures here. Maybe you could just confirm that they are correct. I'm informed that $17.194 million has been allocated for a legal advisory service to provide legal advice and information for people engaging with the royal commission, and more than $20 million has been allocated for a legal financial assistance scheme to provide financial assistance for individuals providing evidence to the royal commission. There's also over $100 million allocated to the Department of Social Services to fund advocacy supports and counselling services and $46 million to fund agencies' portfolio costs to respond to the inquiry. Based on those figures, there's obviously very substantial support—a far cry from the $26 million in total that Labor committed to the royal commission. You've talked about the information to manage conflicts of interest. Could you just expand on how the commission would do that.

Ms Pirani : As I said, the chair of the commission would decide in any particular hearing as to which commissioners would be authorised to conduct and participate in those hearings. As a very experienced judicial officer, our chair would not authorise a commissioner to participate in a hearing if their participation in that hearing would give rise to a conflict of interest or even to a reasonable apprehension of bias. Under no circumstances would a commissioner participate in a hearing or deliberation concerning matters that might bear, in any way, on their past conduct or the discharge of duties that they may have had in the past. And, when a commissioner does not participate in a public hearing for that reason, they would not participate in the preparation of any report or recommendations arising as a direct result of that hearing.

The chair has also pointed out that, when authorising commissioners to hold private sessions, his overriding consideration would be the safety, security and comfort of the person wishing to engage with the commission, and under no circumstances will anyone be asked to tell their story to a commissioner with whom they do not feel comfortable.

Senator HENDERSON: Finally, could you perhaps just give a brief overview of the scope of the commission's work in terms of the geography that will be covered and also the focus on providing people with disability and their families and others who have suffered with the justice that they need, in terms of not just the matters that will be considered by the royal commission but the access to justice?

Ms Pirani : Yes. As I mentioned, we are commencing a program of engagement right around Australia. We have some community forums planned next month in South Australia and in Tasmania. Over the three years of the commission, we will be ensuring we travel right around the country, both to regional and to metropolitan areas. We are very aware that there may be times when we need to go to people rather than expecting people to come to us, and we are very focused on ensuring that everyone who wants to tell their story to the commission can do so. We are very open in how we are doing that. People can communicate with us on the telephone, they can put in a written submission, they can send an email, they can use the form on the website, they can put in a video, they can make a submission in another language—we won't be turning anyone away. We are very interested to hear what everyone has to say and to give everyone the fullest opportunity to engage with us in the way that they want to.

Senator HENDERSON: Ms Pirani, do you have any idea as to how many people you anticipate will be making a submission to the royal commission in any way, as you mentioned, so that they can tell their story?

Ms Pirani : It's very difficult to estimate, but we—

Senator HENDERSON: But it's open-ended?

Ms Pirani : It is open-ended. We expect thousands and thousands of submissions over the three years.

Senator HENDERSON: Thank you very much, Ms Pirani.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Earlier this year—I forget the date, but most recently—the letters patent that guide your existence were amended with the following language in respect of the chair:

… without limiting the generality of the immediately preceding responsibility and as required during the conduct of your inquiry, We further direct that, other than making recommendations arising out of the inquiry … the Chair is authorised to give binding directions to, assign duties or functions to, or restrict the duties or functions of, other appointed Commissioners."

Who is able to tell me whether the chair has so far utilised that power?

Ms Pirani : As far as I'm aware, the chair has not utilised that power.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Could you provide that information to me on notice? Could you clarify that for me and provide it on notice?

Ms Pirani : I could clarify that. As I said, as far as I'm aware, no, but I will certainly clarify that with the chair.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Fantastic. Just referring to the letter you were kind enough to send through to me recently, you mentioned that it is your aspiration for the commission to have a workforce roughly similar to the population proportion of disabled people in Australia. Am I to take it that your aspiration is the commission have a roughly 20 per cent employment rate of disabled people?

Ms Pirani : We haven't set a specific target, but we certainly have specific measures in place in our recruitment to prioritise the recruitment of people who identify as having disability.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: All right. So why don't you have a target?

Ms Pirani : We've certainly had discussions around having a target, and there are a range of views on that.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: When you say 'we', do you mean the department or the commission?

Ms Pirani : Within the commission. And I think that where we got to was that we didn't think it was particularly useful—we wouldn't want to stop because we got to 20 per cent, for example.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Right.

Ms Pirani : And so we're very focused on trying to get as many people, and encouraging as many people with disability to apply for roles within the commission.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: But, again, your letter—I'll read it directly: 'It is our intention that the commission should be at least as representative of the incidence of disability in the Australian population.' Are you there referring to 20 per cent? Is that the incidence in the population?

Ms Pirani : Yes. We would endeavour to get to that.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So, it's your intention?

Ms Pirani : It's our intention.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: To get to 20 per cent.

Ms Pirani : Without putting a definite figure on it.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: And that's the incidence in the population?

Ms Pirani : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: So, in that frame, why not articulate that in a target? You can exceed a target, as you well know, but it's standard practice to have a disability employment target of some level.

Ms Pirani : I'm happy to take that feedback and explore that again.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Could you take that direct question on notice—

Ms Pirani : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: and provide me, in writing, with why you have decided against targets?

Ms Pirani : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Thank you. You also referred, really helpfully, to the fact that 'all employees of the commission will receive extensive disability access and awareness training via internal and external support sources in order to support our understanding of disability inclusion. This includes education provided by disability advocacy organisations and the HRC.' Can you tell me which organisations you've engaged for this training?

Ms Pirani : I would need to take that on notice. I don't have that detail in front of me.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Okay. Could you additionally take on notice the exact nature of that training and who it has been provided to? So, all employees: is that an aspiration, or is it your understanding that to date, at this point, all employees have undertaken that training?

Ms Pirani : We have a lot of employees starting very regularly at the moment. It is certainly our intention to ensure that all employees do. I know that a very large proportion have, but I could not guarantee that every single one of them has.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Is it an online module?

Ms Pirani : No, it's face to face.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Face-to-face training?

Ms Pirani : Yes.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: Okay. Perhaps you could provide additional information. I do have a couple more questions that I want to clear up, but I know we have reached the dinner break.

CHAIR: Thank you to the officers who have given evidence. You are excused.

Proceedings suspended from 18 : 32 to 19 : 34