Parliamentary speeches

Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021

August 30, 2021

I rise to speak in support of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021 and to make it clear that Labor supports the amendments contained in this bill, which do serve a critically important service in the public interest and in the interests of the many Australians who deserve to be able to tell their stories on their terms, without concerns about reprisals or other matters relevant to their privacy, in circumstances going to these vitally important commissions of inquiry—perhaps none more important than the one which has given rise to the need to bring this bill before the parliament, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. The amendments that are contained in the bill were requested quite some time ago by the commission chair, the Hon. Ronald Sackville. It is important that this request and the request of others be responded to and that we consider some of the wider circumstances.

Some of these issues I'll put before the House in the form of a second reading amendment. Others, I think, have been touched upon effectively by the minister responsible for the bill in the House, setting out the extraordinary importance of those of us in this place doing all we can to ensure that the experiences of people with disability, those who care about them and those who have information relevant to their mistreatment—where they have been subjected to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation—particularly in circumstances where these issues may be systemic, are brought before the royal commission so that its deliberations can give us the best possible picture to respond to.

The bill before the House consists of one relatively short schedule. Part 1 deals with the substantive amendments to the Royal Commissions Act 2002 and part 2 with some consequential amendments relating to the Freedom of Information Act implications. The impetus for this bill was the calling of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability in 2019. Of course, the conduct of that inquiry is governed by the Royal Commissions Act and the terms of reference given to the commission. I note in particular paragraphs (e) and (g) of those terms, which provided that the commission have regard to the following:

(e) all forms of violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability, whatever the setting or context—


(g) the specific experiences of violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability are multilayered and influenced by experiences associated with their age, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, intersex status, ethnic origin or race, including the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability …

These provisions of course necessitated collecting evidence in the form of the stories of people's experiences in relevant settings, which led to a concern from those currently in these settings. Given the nature of this inquiry, the vast majority of those with such stories—or a large number of them, one would imagine—and their families might be disinclined to give evidence out of concern that this might lead to them being considered troublemakers or perhaps subjected to some form of unfair treatment, including breaches of their privacy. So it is important that we take appropriate steps to guard against this and also to ensure that people aren't dissuaded by these concerns from telling their stories and so depriving the commission and ultimately the Australian people of valuable perspectives and evidence.

I note that similar issues arose in the course of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and that the Royal Commissions Amendments Bill 2013 made amendments to the principal act in recognition of this. Further, in 2019, those amendments, which enabled material to be put forward and to be received by the commission in private sessions, were able to be applied in other royal commissions through the enactment of the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Act 2019.

However, it has become apparent that these changes did not entirely resolve the issue of addressing barriers to having important witnesses come forward and having their stories be both heard and appropriately protected. Of course, ensuring the protection is critical to giving people the confidence to come forward in many circumstances. This bill seeks to address this through recognising that some information put to the commission other than through such private sessions could need to be protected, particularly once the commission has come to an end and has reported.

Last year, Senator Steele-John introduced a private senator's bill in substantially similar form to this bill, and I think that is something that we should acknowledge. Now, for reasons that are not entirely clear—but I do acknowledge that some further amendments improve the legislation before us—the government has introduced its own legislation, which I am pleased to speak to and indicate Labor's support for. It is of great importance that we protect the privacy of witnesses, including whistleblowers, who are making allegations about systemic failures in this sector and, more broadly, that we encourage all those with relevant experiences to come forward and share these with confidence.

I spoke about the scope of the terms of reference. When we think about those, it becomes clear how attentive we need to be when putting in place these provisions that enable all the perspectives that the commission has been asked to bring to bear to ensure that none are dissuaded from coming forward. I note that disability organisations and advocates have called for this to be better reflected. Further, I note that the Attorney-General has indicated that there is to be a wider review of the principal act to identify any impediments to people sharing information with a royal commission, and this should be an important process too. But, for this royal commission to fulfil its purpose, we do need to have in place a greater capacity to protect and assure privacy on the part of the commission. This bill does that in its amendments to the making of non-publication orders, as has been discussed, and through the broader confidentiality protections which are contained in item 5.

I flagged earlier the reasons for which I thought a second reading amendment to the legislation was necessary, and I move:

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:

(a) in October 2020, the former Attorney-General, the Member for Pearce, said that the Government would 'work swiftly' to introduce these new confidentiality protections for people giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability—protections that had been explicitly requested by the Chair of the Commission, the Hon Ronald Sackville AO QC;

(b) despite that commitment, the Government did not introduce this bill until 17 March 2021; and

(c) the Government also took over six months to respond to Commissioner Sackville's request for an extension to the Disability Royal Commission's reporting date;

(2) is of the view that it is unacceptable, and disrespectful, for the Government to take many months to respond to requests from the Chair of the Disability Royal Commission; and

(3) calls on the Government to respond promptly to any future correspondence from the Chair of the Commission".

It would be remiss of me to conclude my remarks on this bill, given its subject matter and the weight of that subject matter—which you, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, would be very well aware of—without acknowledging the fact that, as I stand here today, many thousands of vulnerable Australians with disability are still unvaccinated against COVID-19. It is deeply concerning that, at the same time as the disability royal commission has been investigating how to better protect people with disabilities from experiencing neglect, the Morrison government's rollout of vaccinations to people with disabilities, especially those in residential care settings, has been such an abject failure. People with disabilities are amongst those Australians most vulnerable to COVID, yet barely a quarter of participants in the NDIS have reportedly been vaccinated. That is behind the national average.

Much more can and will be said about this abject policy failure of the Morrison government, including, I'm sure, by the processes within the royal commission itself. Perhaps, in closing, that's a note that is worth reflecting on. It is absolutely imperative that, for the commission and, indeed, any royal commission to do its job, the best possible evidence be adduced before it. The provisions of this bill go quite some way towards not only filling a gap—a very important gap—that will enable this royal commission to do incredibly important work of advising this government and future governments and the Australian community but also recognising a future standard that must be met in ensuring that such commissions of inquiry can hear from every perspective they need to hear from. I commend the bill to the House.