Australia

Government says it will change laws to better protect witnesses at the disability royal commission

The federal government intends to pass long-awaited reforms next month to strengthen privacy safeguards for witnesses giving evidence before the disability royal commission.

The push comes more than two years after the inquiry started. It comes following repeated warnings from advocates over a loophole that allowed the identity of witnesses to be released after the conclusion of the commission. 

The government introduced the amendments to the Senate in March, but the legislation failed to pass before the sitting deadline.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John questioned Attorney General Michaelia Cash on Thursday about the progress of the bill. 

Senator Steele-John said he remained concerned about protections for witnesses providing evidence around “systemic” concerns with the disability system.

“It is the case that we are currently negotiating a form of words that ameliorate these concerns,” Senator Steele-John said.  

Senator Cash said she had met with Senator Steele-John and would continue to work towards resolving his outstanding concerns.

“We do believe as we discussed that the provision can protect an individual’s account of their experiences or another person’s experiences of a systemic issue,” she told the hearing.

“We’re both on the same side here and we do need to work together and hopefully if we can we can ensure the passage of the legislation in a timely manner.” 

If passed, the government says the amendments wold allow certain witnesses who disclose instances of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation to have their identity sealed indefinitely.

Senator Cash said the legislation had been listed to return to the Senate on 15 June when both houses of parliament sit again. 

“Our intention is to have the bill passed as soon as possible,” she said. 

“We both want the same goal.”

Currently witnesses are able to participate in private sessions and request confidentiality only for the duration of the inquiry.  

The chair of the commission, former federal court judge Ronald Sackville, first requested the government make the changes in February last year, in response to campaigning from disability advocates.  

Secretary of the disability royal commission Paul Cronan said the inquiry continued to support the passing of the legislation. 

“It means that some people who wished to engage with the commission through our submissions process cannot do so until that legislation is passed,” he told estimates.  

Senator Steele-John said he believed many people had been hesitant to give evidence before the inquiry because of a lack of privacy protections. 

“For a lot of people the minute the legislation passes – if we can get it in the right form – that will actually be day one of the royal commission,” he said.  

The royal commission was this month extended for an extra 17 months. It is now due to deliver its report on 29 September 2023.

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