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Thursday, 25 July 2019
Page: 978


Mr MORTON (TangneyAssistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) (09:32): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019 enables the private sessions regime in part 4 of the Royal Commissions Act 1902 to be applied to other royal commissions. The private sessions regime was inserted into the act in 2013 to support the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Private sessions allowed that commission to hear from survivors and victims about their experience of abuse in a private and supportive setting. Participation was voluntary. The commission heard over 8,000 personal stories in private sessions.

For some survivors, telling their story in a private session was the first time in their life they had told someone about their abuse. For others, it was the first time they had been heard by someone in a position of authority.

One survivor told the royal commission: 'After 50 years I finally feel I've been heard. People have listened to me before, but no-one has really heard me.'

The substantial work of that commission is well documented. The government is committed to ensuring it comprehensively and appropriately responds to that work. This includes the national apology delivered by the Prime Minister in this parliament, on behalf of all Australians, to the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

The chair of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, the Hon. Richard Tracey AM, RFD, QC, and the chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the Hon. Ronald Sackville AO, QC, have told the government that private sessions will assist in their important duties.

These are challenging and confronting royal commissions. They are tasked with identifying what should be done to improve the quality and safety of aged-care services in Australia and what should be done to prevent violence and abuse against Australians with a disability.

These inquiries will help identify how systems can be strengthened to prevent and respond to this conduct in the future. Like the child sexual abuse royal commission, both inquiries are engaging with people about their experiences of mistreatment or abuse.

Subject to passage of this bill, it is the government's intention to recommend to the Governor-General that both the aged-care royal commission and the disability royal commission are able to use private sessions.

Private sessions are just one way that the royal commissions can gather sensitive and personal information from individuals. Their use can have implications for the constitution of a royal commission as well as funding implications.

For that reason, the bill provides that private sessions are enabled through a regulation. That mechanism will require a discrete decision on whether private sessions will be useful for a particular inquiry.

The bill largely preserves the framework for private sessions used for the child sexual abuse royal commission. However, some changes are proposed to supplement the way that a commission gathers information and to give more flexibility to a commission.

However, limitations on the use and disclosure of information given at a private session will be retained. Sessions are conducted in private and are not open to the public. Private session information can only be used in a report if it's deidentified or if the information is also given in evidence.

Other limitations include a secrecy offence and a provision that overrides other laws that compel the production of records—for example, subpoenas. Information can be disclosed with the consent of the individual who gave the information.

Private session records are also excluded from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and are treated in the same way as census records under the Archives Act 1983. That means that these records will not become publicly available until 99 years after the year the record was created. These limitations on use and disclosure are designed so that people are not discouraged from sharing their personal stories.

Importantly, as private session information is not given on oath or affirmation, these provisions also serve to protect the privacy and reputations of other individuals.

In practice, commissioners and members of the staff of a royal commission need to engage with individuals before and after their private session. Before a private session, a royal commission may need to gather preliminary information about the individual's story so that the attending commissioners or assistant commissioners are familiar with the person's situation.

After a private session it may be appropriate for a royal commission to contact the participant to discuss any concerns arising from the private session and to offer counselling or support.

To achieve consistent protections, it is proposed to apply existing limitations on use and disclosure of information obtained at a private session to this kind of information.

For some, attending a private session to talk about mistreatment or abuse they have experienced may be traumatising. It is proposed that the protections will apply whether or not the private session is ultimately held.

Under the model used by the child sexual abuse royal commission, only a commissioner could hold a private session. Under this bill, private sessions must be held by a commissioner unless the chair or sole commissioner considers that there are circumstances that justify authorising assistant commissioners to hold private sessions.

Assistant commissioners must be appropriately qualified and senior staff members are to be authorised to hold private sessions. These individuals would be authorised by the chair of a multimember commission or, if an inquiry is constituted by a single commissioner, that commissioner.

This provision is to give more flexibility to the commission. It may enable more sessions to be held, particularly in the case of a royal commission that has only one or two commissioners.

Royal commissions are the highest level of public inquiry and are reserved for matters of significant public importance. The private session framework can be a very important format to supplement the way that a commission gathers information to complete its reporting obligations.

Debate adjourned.