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Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Page: 1528


Mr MORTON (TangneyAssistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet) (10:36): I thank all members for their contribution to this debate on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019. I particularly acknowledge the contribution from the member for Moreton and make a commitment that I will follow up on the issues that he has raised in good faith.

The member for Mayo has also flagged a number of amendments that her colleagues intend to make in the other place. The government will consider these amendments in good faith. However, the government will be noting that this bill specifically relates to issues relating to private sessions of royal commissions, and the amendments that have been flagged are much wider ranging. While we'll look at these issues in good faith, we do note that the bill in front of the House today is a request of the two royal commissions that are currently active and I would be reluctant to do anything to delay the passing of this legislation that would inhibit, in any way, the functioning of those two commissions.

The private sessions framework made an important contribution to the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The primary purpose of this bill is to enable the private sessions framework to be used in other royal commissions via regulation. Subject to the passage of this bill, the government proposes to recommend to the Governor-General that private sessions be made available for both the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

As I said in my second reading speech, private sessions are designed so that individuals can tell their story to a commission. Depending on the subject matter under inquiry, stories could be of a deeply personal and traumatic nature and it might take courage for individuals to come forward. For this reason, private sessions have less formality and are not public. The bill adopts the limits on the use and disclosure of private session information that applied to the royal commission into child sexual abuse. This includes the approach to rights of public access under the Freedom of Information Act and the Archives Act.

When a royal commission is completed, the records of the commission are deemed to be Commonwealth records. This bill will exclude private session information from a right of access under the Freedom of Information Act. The bill also treats private session information in the same way that a census record is treated under the Archives Act. That means that these records won't become publicly available until 99 years after the year that the record was created.

Under the Archives Act, even when a record is in the open access period exemptions can be applied. This includes an exemption covering the unreasonable disclosure of information relating to the personal affairs of any person, including a deceased person. As a result of lessons learned from the child sexual abuse royal commission, the bill extends the limits on the use and disclosure to also cover information given outside of a private session—that is, to address an operational reality.

In order to deal with matters such as eligibility and scheduling, a royal commission will gather information about a person's experiences outside the private session itself. In the bill, there is a presumption in favour of the commissioner-held private sessions. For flexibility, the bill also proposes that appropriately qualified and senior staff of a royal commission can hold a private session. These individuals will be called assistant commissioners in recognition of their special skills and qualifications. It is envisaged that this power could be particularly useful for commissions where there are one or two commissioners. It is also a discretionary power: it is excisable if the chair or a sole commissioner considers that there are circumstances that justify a private session being held by an authorised staff member. Private sessions are a valuable tool for obtaining personal and sensitive stories from individuals. This bill will help authorise royal commissions to gather the information that they require for their inquiries. I commend the bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Isaacs has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.