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Monday, 15 February 2021
Page: 476


Senator WATT (Queensland) (11:17): I rise to speak in support of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Confidentiality Protections) Bill 2020, and Labor will be supporting this bill. The bill will amend the Royal Commissions Act 1902 and make consequential amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to ensure ongoing confidentiality protections for people giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. Currently, evidence that is received in private sessions conducted by the Disability Royal Commission is treated as confidential and is guaranteed to remain confidential after the commission's work is completed. However, the same privacy protections do not apply where evidence or information is received by the commission outside of a private session, even if prior to the evidence or information being given the commission indicated to the person providing the evidence or information that it would be treated as confidential and, after it was received by the commission, the material was, in fact, treated as confidential. It is quite astounding that such information will not be protected by privacy protections in the same way.

Disability advocates have argued persuasively that this may discourage some people from giving evidence to the disability royal commission. The amendments in this bill have been sought by disability advocates including the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and also by the chair of the disability royal commission, Ronald Sackville AO QC. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone who is opposed to these amendments. Last year, the Morrison government even announced that it would introduce similar legislation yet the Morrison government is so allergic to following through on its announcements that, as is almost invariably the case, it has done nothing. We will soon find out whether the Morrison government's aversion to following through on its announcements extends to voting against legislation that would do more than implement the government's own policy commitment, a truly bizarre situation.

Let's be very clear: the disability royal commission is ongoing, and the amendments in this bill are likely to have a material impact on the willingness of people with disabilities to make submissions to the commission. There is no reason to delay the introduction of this relatively simple set of amendments, and there are plenty of reasons to expedite them. As we learned from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, it is critical that survivors of abuse in institutional settings be allowed to tell their stories in private and that requests for confidentiality be respected and backed by legislation; otherwise, many will not tell their stories at all.

In 2013 the Gillard Labor government amended the Royal Commissions Act 1902 to allow the chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to authorise a fellow commissioner to hold a private session to receive information from victims and others affected by child sexual abuse. As the then Attorney-General said at the time:

A traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally serve as the best way to facilitate participation in the royal commission by those people affected by child sexual abuse.

For many, telling their story will be deeply personal and traumatic. While we cannot know at this time how many people will wish to participate, sadly we know that this crime has affected many in our community.

Over 8,000 personal stories were told to commissioners in private sessions during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Many others were able to tell their personal stories confidentially outside of private sessions, and they could do so because of the privacy protections that were inserted into the Royal Commissions Act and the Freedom of Information Act in relation to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Against that background, it is important to emphasise that the specific amendments in this bill are consistent with the privacy protections that applied to the child sexual abuse royal commission. Clearly the privacy protections that applied in relation to the child sexual abuse royal commission should also apply to the disability royal commission. That is what this bill seeks to achieve, and that's why we ask the government to support these amendments.

The privacy concerns driving the introduction of this bill are not the only issue that people with disability and advocates in the sector have raised in relation to this royal commission. The disability royal commission was established in April 2019, in response to community concern about widespread reports of violence against and the neglect, abuse and exploitation of people with a disability. It set out to investigate preventing and better protecting people with disability from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation; achieving best practice in reporting, investigating and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability; and promoting a more inclusive society that supports people with disability to be independent and live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

The Morrison government dragged its feet for two years before establishing the royal commission, which Labor first called for in 2017. It was finally announced in 2019, but only at the prospect of the government losing a vote on the floor of parliament. At the time, then Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten said:

We have to recognise that while ever we are a nation who devalues people with a disability, then we will never actually get to the root cause of violence and the prevention of violence, abuse and neglect.

But the disability royal commission has been plagued by this government's continuing disinterest in the systemic problems that exist in Australia's disability frameworks. The terms set out by the disability royal commission are at risk of not being properly investigated while the Morrison government overlooks the basic requirements of people seeking to make a submission to the inquiry.

Since the inquiry's establishment, Labor has called for the Morrison government to heed the calls of more than 60 disability advocacy groups and address the composition of the disability royal commission, to remove commissioners who have conflicts of interest and to replace them with people who have lived experience of disability and the support of the sector. The royal commission is inquiring into episodes that are highly sensitive as well as confronting for those affected. It is only appropriate that the commissioners be people who can hear such evidence objectively and without any perception that their consideration of this evidence be biased in any way. In 2019 the majority of the Senate supported a motion calling on the Morrison government to remove two of the commissioners and to replace them, with a set of positive criteria identified by the disability community. The Morrison government has ignored these concerns, and people with disability remain uncomfortable with making submissions to a royal commission overseen by former disability bureaucrats with real or perceived links to institutions of abuse and neglect.

For too long people with disability have had to reiterate 'nothing about us without us'. These calls have been frustrated by this royal commission, which has heard from more experts and carers than it has witnesses with lived experience of disability. The vetting process of expert witnesses providing evidence has been questioned following the appearance of Mr Simon Wardale, who a coroner found, in relation to the death of a disabled woman under his care, fell into error by failing to remain alert to the possibility of a serious head injury and to act decisively. Mr Wardale appeared as an expert witness as part of last September's public hearings into the use of psychotropic medication, behaviour support and behaviours of concern. That he has been provided a platform to speak on behalf of people with a disability is unacceptable and raises serious concerns about the process used by the royal commission to invite witnesses to appear before it.

Often the reason people with disability fall prey to abuse can be directly linked to the inherent power imbalances that exist in treatment or carer-patient relationships. A royal commission investigating violence against—and then neglect, abuse and exploitation of—people with disability should therefore hear from people with disability first and foremost, and properly vetted experts and carers secondarily to supplement that evidence. Despite the issues with confidence in the disability royal commission, Labor supports the people with disability and advocates who continue to fight for ownership of the inquiry. The calls to action so far made by the disability royal commission have been constructive.

In March 2020, the royal commission issued a statement of concern that the federal government had not included people with disability in the emergency planning for the coronavirus response. In August, the royal commission held hearings into the experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, revealing that the Morrison government did not mention disability once in its first pandemic response plan. The hearings heard stories such as Ricky's, who's aged 45 and in Melbourne. He was forced to survive on muesli bars for nine days while bedridden without access to a support worker when coronavirus hit. What a way to treat our fellow Australians! The oversight of 4.4 million people in a national emergency is symptomatic of the struggle that Australians with disability face in a society that, without leadership from its government, continues to exclude and overlook them.

Labor supports the finding by the royal commission that it was a serious failure that no Australian government agency with responsibility for disability policy, including the Department of Health, made any significant effort to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its 560-page interim report, handed down in October 2020, the royal commission noted these attitudinal and communication barriers and the high rates of violence many people experience. The report did not make a clear set of recommendations but urged the federal government to do more to support people with disability during the coronavirus pandemic. Labor is calling on the Morrison government to act immediately on the issues presented by the interim report to prevent the further exclusion of people with disability from national planning and response.

At the same time Commissioner Ronald Sackville handed down the interim report, the royal commission made a request to the government that, due to the scale of work required and the COVID-19 pandemic, the April 2022 reporting date for the final report be extended by an extra 17 months, until 29 September 2023. Mr Sackville has reasoned that the broad scope of the inquiry's terms of reference—one of the biggest of any royal commission—means no firm recommendations could be made in the interim report and the commission needs an extension to hand down a final report. He is expected to request an extension to 29 September 2023.

Labor supports the royal commission's request for an extension and urges the government to address the barriers preventing many people from making a submission before the closing date. It's almost two years into the inquiry and it is long overdue that these concerns be addressed. Labor will continue to call on the government to act so that the royal commission can maintain its integrity, and people with disability, their families and carers and the disability sector can have confidence that their evidence is heard independently and impartially.

In conclusion, Labor will be supporting these amendments. We don't see any distinction between the arrangements that were made by the previous Gillard Labor government in relation to the child sexual abuse royal commission and this royal commission into the abuse of people with disability. Arrangements were changed for the child sexual abuse royal commission to ensure that evidence could be provided confidentially, with privacy protections, outside of private sessions. We think that the same thing should be done in relation to the disability royal commission.

People with a disability have been waiting far too long for these terrible abuses and neglect to be properly investigated. We should all be doing everything we can to ensure that their evidence can be provided safely, confidentially and securely, to inspire confidence in this royal commission and to ensure that at last people with disability who have suffered abuse and neglect actually can be heard properly and securely and can have confidence that their concerns will be dealt with. These abuses have gone on too long. Confidentiality is required to make sure that they are properly addressed.