SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
Royal Commissions Amendment(Private Sessions) Bill 2019
31 JULY 2019
In 2013 this parliament 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 survivors and others affected by child sexual abuse. I introduced this change as former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Attorney-General. As I said at the time, a traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally serve as the best way to facilitate participation in a royal commission by survivors of abuse. For many survivors, telling their story is important to the work of the inquiry but is also deeply personal and potentially traumatic. The use of private sessions made it possible for as many as 8,000 survivors of child sexual abuse to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Such a regime is likely to also prove valuable to survivors of elder abuse and also to people with disabilities who have been subjected to abuse.
Labor is therefore pleased to support this bill, which will enable other royal commissions to hold private sessions where a regulation is made under the Royal Commissions Act authorising it to do so. In effect, this would extend the private sessions regime that applied to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to other royal commissions in appropriate circumstances, including the disability royal commission and the aged-care royal commission, both of which are now underway.
However, simply providing the legal mechanism to assist survivors to appear before a royal commission is not sufficient. For that reason, the Gillard government provided the funding necessary to establish a legal service called Knowmore, which provided free legal advice and information to any member of the public who had suffered child sexual abuse in an institution and who wanted to tell their story to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. That legal service still exists today. We note that the government has followed Labor's policy lead in this regard and set aside funding in the budget to provide assistance to witnesses appearing before the disability and aged-care royal commissions. Labor welcomes this; however, we call on the government to regularly review those funding levels to ensure that no survivor of abuse or their relatives and carers are denied an opportunity to receive the support they need to tell their story to either of these two vitally important royal commissions.
I'd like to say a few words about the disability royal commission. Ensuring that survivors of abuse are properly supported so that they can tell their stories to the disability royal commission will be critical to the success of that royal commission. But all the well-intentioned legal mechanisms in the world and all of the funding under the sun will be for nothing if survivors of abuse still do not feel comfortable telling their stories. Regrettably, that is what the disability community has been telling us, and it is what they have been telling the government too. Specifically, the disability community has made it very clear that John Ryan and Barbara Bennett should never have been appointed as royal commissioners, not because they are anything other than committed public servants but because they have clear conflicts of interest. Both have held senior government roles overseeing some of the very programs that are likely to be examined by the Royal Commission. That is unacceptable. As my colleague the member for Maribyrnong said last week:
This commission is a chance to let sunlight in, expose historical wrongs and learn from them so we can provide better services to people with disability and eradicate abuse and neglect from their lives in the future.
But that will be impossible to achieve if we have two commissioners who could end up in charge of investigating themselves, their former colleagues or their former workplaces.
When the Prime Minister announced the disability royal commission he said:
This will provide the opportunity for Australians to truly understand how people with disabilities live in this country and what our obligations are to share the journey with them, to show them the respect that they deserve as a fellow Australian, as a fellow human being.
I ask the Prime Minister: how can we hope to use his words to truly understand how people with disabilities live in this country if we do not hear from them? Australians with disabilities are telling you that you made a mistake when you appointed John Ryan and Barbara Bennett as royal commissioners. Australians with disabilities are telling you that these two commissioners have to either step down or be removed. Australians with disabilities are telling you that, if that does not happen, many people, many victims and many survivors, will not give evidence to the royal commission at all. We all hate to make mistakes, and admitting them can be hard. But the integrity of this royal commission is more important than a Prime Minister's pride. It is more important than a Prime Minister's ego.
It is long past time for the Prime Minister to show people with disabilities the respect that they deserve, to use his words again, by acting on their clearly stated concerns about the commissioners the Prime Minister has appointed. This royal commission is not about the Prime Minister or this government; it's not about John Ryan or Barbara Bennett either. It is only about the far too many Australians with disabilities who have been subjected to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. I implore the Prime Minister to do the right thing, set aside his pride and listen to the people who this royal commission is about. They are speaking loudly and clearly. They are telling the Prime Minister that John Ryan and Barbara Bennett should step down as commissioners and that, if they do not, the Prime Minister should remove them.
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that:
- the use of private sessions made it possible for as many as 8,000 survivors of child sexual abuse to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse;
- a private sessions regime is likely to prove equally valuable to survivors of elder abuse and people with disabilities who wish to tell their stories to the Disability and Aged Care Royal Commissions; and
- the Government has set aside funding in the budget to provide financial and legal assistance to witnesses appearing before Disability and Aged Care Royal Commissions; and
(2) is of the view that:
- the Government should regularly review the amount of funding it has set aside for financial and legal assistance to ensure that no survivor of abuse is denied an opportunity to tell their story to either the Disability or Aged Care Royal Commission; and
- there is more that the Government can and should do in order to ensure the integrity of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability".