Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019 Second Reading Speech

July 31, 2019

I rise to speak on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019, which provides for a royal commission to be able to hold private sessions if a commissioner believes it is appropriate. I certainly want to speak about this bill in the context of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. Many people from the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury in my electorate of Macquarie—whether they be carers or family members of residents or residents themselves of aged-care or supported accommodation services, care workers, or aged-care and disability service operators—have raised with me issues that I hope are going to be well explored by each of these royal commissions.

What has struck me is the sensitivity of their observations and experiences. This is especially the case if they are currently living within a facility or have a family member living within a facility or are receiving care from that same provider as to whom they have concerns. I think that, when we're asking people to speak about really sensitive matters, including some that may affect and be about their own family members, there is a fear in doing that. People do feel vulnerable, and the fear of speaking out silences too many people.

When the Gillard Labor government amended the Royal Commissions Act in 2013 to allow the chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to authorise another commissioner to hold a private session so that they could receive information from victims and others affected by child sexual abuse, it really was a pivotal moment, because it acknowledged that a traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally be the best way to encourage participation in the process by people who've been affected by child sexual abuse.

Hearings are held in quite sterile, formal environments much of the time—quite intimidating environments. Even when we hold our own regular committee hearings, we as parliamentarians see some evidence of that. Recognising that and taking steps to change it and make the process more accessible was really key. It recognised that telling their story would be a deeply personal and traumatic process for victims, and it understood that it was in the best interests of the royal commission that every effort be made to understand the impacts of the crimes against those children.

Extending private sessions made it possible for as many as 8,000 victims of child sexual abuse to tell their stories. I note the member for Moreton quoted the comment from someone about what it meant to them to be able to tell their story, and men and women around the country have had similar sentiments about the difference it has made in their lives, as a first step, to be able to tell that story. I'm pleased that a Labor initiative is being continued by this Liberal government, recognising its value to victims of elder abuse, to people with disabilities who've been abused and neglected and to others who may not feel comfortable speaking publicly.

I suppose some people might be wondering why private hearings might make a difference and what difference they make. Even if you don't compare it to what we saw in the previous royal commission, I can think of multiple conversations I've had about this with carers, with people with disabilities, with staff who work in facilities. Friends, in my experience, often look on in despair as an ageing partner cares for their wife or husband, determined to do it on their own and refusing to admit that they need physical or emotional support to do it. They need a safe place to explain why that 12- to 18-month wait for high care as part of an in-home package is too long to wait. They barely admit it to themselves, let alone want to admit it to a wider audience.

Parents who care for a child or adult with a disability often talk to me about the need for respite but also their guilt in having to admit they need help. They need to be able to explain what difference that week of respite care makes, not just to themselves as carers but to the rest of the family. What's more, they need a private place to explain how it feels to learn that, during that respite, an abuse or neglect of their loved one has occurred. These are hard things to admit and heartbreaking to witness, but they are the stories that we need to hear.

For someone who has a loved one in aged care, I know there's also that fear of speaking out about what consequences there might be for making any criticism. People do feel vulnerable. I see that even in the hesitation that people have in making a formal complaint to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. This is just a bit of insight into why these private sessions are so important in this royal commission process. People need to be able to talk about these issues in privacy, in a supported environment.

One of the really important things that we did as Labor, when enabling victims to appear at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, was to recognise that they would need support in just getting to that point. We provided the funding to establish a legal service giving free legal advice and information to any member of the public who wanted to tell their story. That legal service still exists today, and I note that the government has set aside funding in the budget to provide financial assistance to witnesses before they appear at the disability and aged care royal commissions. I'm very pleased to see that. We would ask the government to review that regularly and review the funding levels to ensure that no victim is denied an opportunity to share their experiences.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to reinforce our view that two senior public servants who were key decision-makers in areas that will be examined by the disability royal commission should be removed from it because of the inherent conflict of interest that they bring to the process. We can't have the integrity of the royal commission undermined from the start; it isn't a good way to start.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to encourage people in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury to make a submission to these royal commissions. It isn't a time for silence; it is a time to share your experiences so that we can learn from those experiences. If you have experienced neglect or abuse, or know of someone with a disability who has experienced neglect or abuse, please tell that story. If you are involved with somebody who is in an aged-care facility or who receives in-home aged care and who is a victim of elder abuse, we also need to hear those stories. So, please make a submission. If you need support in making that submission, my office will be very pleased to assist. It doesn't have to be a daunting process, but it is really important to take part in the process. I commend this legislation.