Stronger privacy protections set to be locked in for disability royal commission witnesses

Stronger privacy protections to better protect witnesses of the disability royal commission have unanimously passed the Senate following long-held concerns over a lack of safeguards.  

The Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021 passed on Wednesday with the support of the government as well as Labor and Greens senators, and did not require a formal vote. 

The bill is aimed at boosting the trust of people with disability and potential whistleblowers to come forward to share evidence. 

It will ensure information provided to the commission would remain in confidence after the inquiry ends, and guarantee stronger protections for those who expose institutional failures.  

The passing of the bill comes more than two years after the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability commenced.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the amendments will address lasting privacy concerns.

“The amendments will ensure that all persons wishing to engage with the disability royal commission can be confident that they can tell their stories or provide information in a way that protects the confidentiality of their sensitive information and protects them against potential adverse consequences,” she told the Senate on Wednesday. 

The laws also ensure sensitive information provided to the inquiry outside private sessions can be accorded the same confidentiality as those within. 

The chair of the commission, Ronald Sackville, a former Federal Court judge, first requested the changes in February last year after campaigning from disability advocates. 

Since then, advocates have continued to stress the urgent need for stronger protections, saying a lack of safeguards was preventing witnesses from sharing their experiences with the royal commission.

The government announced its intention to address the issue through legislation last October. But since then, the push has been held up by outstanding concerns the initial measures did not go far enough.  

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John has been engaged in long-term discussions with the government around ways to ensure adequate protections would be provided.

He told the Senate on Wednesday the reforms would allow witnesses to come forward with trust. 

“With the passage of this legislation, we encourage everyone to come forward and share their experience of violence abuse, neglect or exploitation with the commission,” he said.

“It is vital to ensuring that this investigation is able to do its work.” 

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives before officially becoming law. 

The royal commission was extended for an extra 17 months in May this year, and is now due to deliver its report on 29 September, 2023.

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