Disability advocates say they are disappointed by the government’s failure to legislate urgent reforms to strengthen privacy safeguards for witnesses at the disability royal commission during this week’s Senate sitting period, delaying the changes for more than six weeks.
The amendments to the Royal Commissions Act, introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, would address a loophole that allows the identity of witnesses to be released following the conclusion of the inquiry.
Advocates say the lack of privacy protections have stopped potential whistleblowers from coming forward.
Labor and the Greens have called on the government to pass the amendments as a matter of priority, more than a year after the chair of the disability royal commission, Ronald Sackville, first requested the changes.
The amendments will now be delayed until both houses sit again on 11 May at the earliest, giving rise to fears the commission will continue to miss key evidence 18 months after it commenced.
“The government has had plenty of time to have resolved the issue, it should have been put in place at the start of building the disability royal commission rules,” Sam Connor, president of People With Disability Australia (PWDA), told SBS News.
“There needs to be adequate consultation time, it needs to be prioritised, and it should have been done a long time ago.”
If passed, the Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill will allow certain witnesses who disclose instances of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation to have their identity sealed indefinitely.
Currently, witnesses are able to participate in private sessions and request confidentiality only for the duration of the inquiry.
But Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who lives with cerebral palsy, said there are concerns the bill in its current form will not cover whistleblowers who wish to anonymously disclose instances of systemic abuse as opposed to the mistreatment of individuals.
“If the government had produced this legislation at any point before 48 hours before the parliament rose, I think we would have been able to consult with experts properly, offer suggested amendments, amend the legislation, and pass it through,” he told SBS News.
There is an “incredible amount of frustration among the disability community” who want to see the issue addressed, he added.
“It’s yet another delay in something that has taken 18 months, which could have been done in a matter of weeks.”
Labor’s NDIS spokesperson, Bill Shorten, said it was “bewildering” that the government hadn’t acted to legislate the changes after he wrote to the Acting Attorney-General Michaelia Cash urging her to prioritise the reforms this week.
“Unfortunately, the government, when it had a chance yesterday to prioritise improving the confidentiality and privacy rights of people wanting to give evidence to the royal commission, has just put it on the backburner,” he said.
“The bill isn’t everything that we want, but it would be better than nothing at all.”
He also questioned why the government did not support a private bill introduced by Senator Steele-John in October last year – which passed the Senate last month with the support of Labor – despite expressing support for the amendments.
Senator Cash did not respond to SBS News’ request for comment before publication.
Last week she said there were “a number of ways that a royal commission can protect information provided and the identity of witnesses even after the royal commission has ended”.
“This could include the use of private sessions or pseudonyms or the making of do not publish orders,” she said. “It is clearly a matter for the Royal Commission as to how it applies these protections.”
A disability royal commission spokesperson has previously told SBS News it welcomes the government’s plans to amend the legislation – which they said should encourage further participation of people with disability in the inquiry – but declined to comment on the recent delay.
‘This is what it looks like for people with a disability’
Advocates have long-campaigned for witnesses at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability to be afforded the same privacy protections as those who gave evidence to Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission.
They say the lack of privacy safeguards has contributed to people with disability feeling they cannot share their stories, especially if they still live in the setting where the alleged abuses occurred.
“When your disability service provider is your landlord, as well as the person who provides your support, we’re talking about support that ranges from making sure you have food, making sure that you have shelter, making sure you’re able to go out every day,” Ms Connor said.
“Can you imagine what it’s like having to rely on that person to make sure you’re able to tell a story about them … and then know you wouldn’t have privacy and they would find out exactly what you have said about them.
“This is what it looks like for people with a disability.”
Announcing the planned changes in October last year, Attorney-General Christian Porter – who is currently on medical leave – said the government would “work swiftly” to introduce the amendments during the Autumn sitting of Parliament.
He said the changes would be an important step in ensuring the royal commission “is guided by people’s experiences and that its outcomes are based on a true reflection of those experiences”.
“We want people in the community to engage fully with the royal commission,” he said.
‘Urgent’ extension still not granted
The government has also faced criticism over its delay in approving a request for a 17-month extension to the commission, first requested by Mr Sackville when he handed down the inquiry’s interim report in October last year.
At the time, Mr Sackville said the Commission was not “a sprint, it’s a marathon” – noting the terms of reference covered by the inquiry were larger than any other royal commission in the past 20 years.
Mr Sackville wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Porter again in December last year stressing the urgency of the request, but is yet to receive a decision.
If granted, the final report would be handed down on 29 September 2023 – almost a year and a half after the original deadline of April next year.
Last week, Senator Cash told SBS News a decision on the commission’s request for an extension would be announced in due course.
“The fact they have delayed on this issue as well is a further demonstration of a really concerning pattern of delay when it comes to this commission,” Senator Steele-John said.
“They are setting the thing up to fail, and that is not okay.”
About 2.4 million people with a disability aged between 18 and 64 had experienced some form of violence in their lifetime as of 2016, the inquiry’s interim report found.
The commission’s next public hearing, which will examine the NDIS and service providers, is due to begin in Sydney on 24 May.
A free national legal service has been established to assist people to share their story with the commission. The service, called Your Story Disability Legal Support, is independent of the inquiry and funded by Legal Aid.
People with disability who are impacted by violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation are also able to contact the National Counselling and Referral Service on 1800 421 468 for counselling support or to be connected to a counsellor or advocate near you. Support is free, independent and confidential.