There’s no getting around the fact that it has been a busy few years for the disability sector. First the NDIS rollout, then the Quality and Safeguards Commission comes along, and now a Royal Commission! It’s all very stressful. But while we’re all busy pulling our hair out, it is easy to forget that we are actually living through some really exciting and historic times for disability rights in Australia. Right now, there is bipartisan support behind calls for reform. And with the Royal Commission, we have the opportunity to dramatically improve how we support people to safeguard their human rights.
But with all the movement that has been occurring in the sector, you would be forgiven for not being across the details of the Disability Royal Commission. So before it really gears up, let’s take a look at what it is all about!
What will this Royal Commission cover?
The Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability Royal Commission) are to explore what should be done to:
prevent, and better protect people with disability from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation
achieve best practice in reporting and investigating of, and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation
promote a more inclusive society that supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
In other words- absolutely everything. Seriously, the scope of this Royal Commission is freaking huge, especially when you compare it to previous inquiries. It is wide enough to avoid leaving anyone out. And that is exactly what makes it so damn exciting.
How did this come about?
Like the NDIS, the Disability Royal Commission is the love-child of miraculously good timing and political luck. But it was by no means a new idea. Advocates have been calling for a Disability Royal Commission for decades. In 2015, it was the top recommendation by a Senate Inquiry into abuse, violence and neglect of people with disability in residential and intuitional settings. However, even this was not enough to get the idea over the line.
But early this year everything changed. The announcement of a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety re-sparked calls for a Disability Royal Commission. WA Greens Senator, Jordan Steele-John championed the cause in parliament. In February, Senator Steele-John’s motion calling for a Disability Royal Commission passed through the Senate despite opposition from the governing Coalition.
The government was then put into an awkward position. This was back in the days of minority government, not long after the refugee medical evacuation bill saw the Coalition losing a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. If the same thing had happened again over a Disability Royal Commission, it would have just been plain embarrassing. Plus, at that time we were just months away from a federal election. So, in the end, the Coalition added their support to the Disability Royal Commission. By April, it was officially announced. It was show time.
Who are the Commissioners?
The Hon Ronald Sackville AO QC is the Chair of the Royal Commission. Sackville is a former judge at the Federal Court of Australia, and he has led many public inquiries before this one. So (hopefully) it will be in good hands! He will be supported by:
Ms Barbara Bennett PSM. Bennett has 20 years experience in senior roles the public service, including at the Department of Social Services and the Department of Human Services. Her mother and daughter both live with disabilities.
Dr Rhonda Galbally AC. Galbally has worked in disability rights and policy for decades. She developed the National Disability and Carer Alliance, which became the Every Australian Counts campaign for the NDIS. Galbally was a board member of the NDIA and Principal Member of the Independent Advisory Council to the NDIA. She lives with a disability and talks about the influence that this has had on her career in episode 3 of DSC’s podcast Disability Done Differently.
Ms Andrea Mason OAM. Andrea is a Ngaanyatjarra and Kronie Australian woman from Western Australia. She has worked in Indigenous Affairs in a variety of roles, including as CEO of Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY)’s Women’s Council.
Alastair McEwin AM. In his most recent role, Alastair served Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner. He was also involved in the drafting in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability (UN CRPD). Alastair has lived with a disability since birth.
The Hon John Ryan AM. John is a former NSW state parliamentarian and served as the Shadow Minister for Disability Services. He has held various senior positions in the NSW public service, including at the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).
But wait, isn’t there some controversy about the Commissioners?
Yes, things are getting real messy.
Labor and the Greens have joined disability groups in calling for the resignation of Commissioners Barbara Bennett and John Ryan. The argument is that there is a significant conflict of interest due to the Commissioners’ previous senior roles implementing disability policy in the public service. The government has refused to drop the pair, who have agreed to sit out of hearings related to their former workplaces. However, last month the controversy took a nasty turn when John Ryan allegedly sent Senator Steele- John an “I won’t sue you for defamation, but I could” email. There have been calls for boycotts and protests if these Commissioners stay on. Nobody knows what will happen from here. But there is one thing we can promise: drama.
Where will the Royal Commission be located?
The Royal Commission will be based in Brisbane, but there will be hearings across the country.
When will we know the outcome?
The Royal Commission has already started collecting evidence through submissions and community forums. We can expect an interim report no later than 30 October 2020, and a final report by no later than 29 April 2022.
How will people give evidence?
The Disability Royal Commission is currently accepting submissions, which can be made by phone, email or form. Submissions are the main opportunity providers and people with disability will have share their experiences with the Royal Commission. The Commission will provide accessibility support to enable people with disability and their families to make a submission. It is important to note that submissions will be considered public documents, though personal information will be redacted. People will have the opportunity to make confidential submissions soon. More information about submissions can be found here. We recommend sharing that link around widely, so that nobody misses out on this once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute to the Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission will also be running community forums around the country. Times and locations will be announced shortly on the inquiry’s website.
The Commission will also hold public hearings. This is the aspect of Royal Commissions you are probably familiar with from the evening news. They give the Commissioners the opportunity to question the people giving evidence. Just a note that Royal Commissions have the authority to summon witnesses and there are penalties for giving false evidence. So if it comes up, maybe don’t do that.
Why do we need a Royal Commission if the Quality and Safeguards Commission is only just gearing up?
Recommendations from the Disability Royal Commission can inform how the Quality and Safeguards Commission conducts its work. So the timing is actually pretty good. It is also worth remembering that the NDIS only provides support for 10% of Australians with disability. In contrast, the Disability Royal Commission will explore violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation against all people with disability. The Quality and Safeguards Commission only has oversight over NDIS supports.
What could be the consequences of the Royal Commission?
Royal Commissions have the power to refer matters to the police for investigation and prosecution. However, their most common function is to make policy recommendations to the government. The government can then choose whether or not they implement these recommendations. Royal Commissions cannot provide compensation for victims, but they can recommend that the government establishes a victim compensation fund.
The Disability Royal Commission is going to be a difficult and triggering time for many people. There is no doubt that it will unearth some deeply disturbing stories that will stir difficult memories. But the experience of giving evidence for the purpose of creating change can be very empowering for people who have undergone trauma, if they are given the right support. Providers have a really important role to play in enabling people to contribute to the inquiry. The Royal Commission will also be a significant learning opportunity for the entire disability sector. So staying up to date will be essential. To help, DSC will be providing regular updates on the progress of the inquiry. Stay tuned.