Monday, 18 February 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Disability Services; Consideration of Senate Message
I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their words and for their support of this motion. Five years ago, on 24 November 2014, a Four Corners investigation revealed widespread and shocking violence, abuse and neglect experienced by disabled people in the spaces where they live, where they work, where they learn and where they receive services, often by the very people charged with their support. And these were not isolated incidents but just the tip of the iceberg of abuse, enforced silence and institutional cover-up. These revelations were a shock to the Australian community, though, sadly, not to the many disabled people themselves, for whom this had been a long-lived daily reality. What many members of the community of people with disabilities have told me, though, is that they felt that in the parliament the reaction followed a well-worn script of regret. Ministers, service providers and others expressed shock, empathy and a desire to get to the bottom of issues, but there was one sentiment that was notably absent, and that was a commitment to action.
My colleague Rachel Siewert immediately moved to establish and subsequently chaired a Senate inquiry that uncovered the horrific depth and breadth of the abuses that were being experienced daily around the country as well as the culture of cover-up that accompanied that. Heard at the hearings were stories of crimes of the most horrific nature: of beatings, sexual abuse, starvation, unauthorised restrictions, forced sterilisations and even neglect resulting in death. In Western Australia there was a case of a woman who was raped over 100 times in an institution. In 2015, realising that it had only been able to scratch the surface, the Senate inquiry handed down a comprehensive report which included 29 recommendations, the first of which was a call for the government to immediately establish a royal commission. At the time, that's what the Greens called for, and the responses were, sadly, to do nothing. I think it's now been recognised that, so long as we continue to do nothing under the guise of NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, which only covers a small proportion of people who have disabilities in our country, we will only just scrape the surface.
In March 2017, Four Corners yet again exposed what is happening to the disabled people behind the closed doors of Australia's disability institutions, particularly detailing the ways in which disability support workers were moved around within service organisations rather than being reported to the police, not unlike the practices of the Catholic Church, which were revealed in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We raised it again in the Senate, and it gives me great pleasure to know that, unlike previous times, this time it is falling on welcome ears in this place.
In December 2017—and this can be an undeniable catalyst to this point that we are reaching today—in one of his first acts as a senator, Senator Jordon Steele-John called on the Senate to voice its support again, and this time the others began to listen. I want to commend Senator Steele-John for his tireless advocacy on this issue—particularly the moving speech that he gave last year, naming just some of those disabled people who have died at the hands of this broken system. Jordon shepherded the motion through the Senate, and I want to pay tribute and commend him. But I also want to note that it shouldn't be the responsibility of the only disabled person in this place to fight for this.
I want to thank the Prime Minister for standing up today and now agreeing on the need to call a royal commission. But what we need now is action. People have been waiting for a very, very long time. I outlined the history not to make political points but to say that people are feeling frustrated and angry and today a slight bit happy, but it comes against a backdrop of hearing promises after promises and not seeing action. What we need immediately is a time line, a time line for the implementation of this royal commission, and we need to see it immediately.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard did a great thing when she called the royal commission. She did it in the face of opposition, and she did it in an instance where it had impacts on what was happening in state governments and state government institutions, but she went ahead and did it anyway. When there were the shocking exposes about what is happening within aged care, the Prime Minister called the royal commission immediately. We can do that this time as well. Yes, there may be issues to be worked through with the states and there may be technical issues to be worked out, but it is a moral imperative that we have a time line and action right now. The suffering of people with disabilities in this country demands it.
I want to thank the members of the wide and varied community of people with disabilities for everything they have done to bring this to national attention. I want to thank people for coming here today. Even in coming here today, we were reminded of how, in many, many ways, this suffering is experienced on a daily basis. I was talking to people who wanted to make a last-minute trip to come here because this important vote was coming up, only to find that the chairs that they need weren't able to be fitted on the plane to get them here in time. This is something where, when we hear it, we are shocked to think that someone couldn't freely move from one place to another for such an important political event, but this is the tip of the iceberg and something that is happening on a daily basis.
What also became apparent from talking to members of the disability community is that, despite their breadth and despite how varied their lives are—as varied as everyone in this country—one of the common feelings that shines through is that feeling of being ignored, that feeling of being overlooked and that feeling of being talked about but not talked to. And I want to say to everyone who has made the trip here today, everyone who has fought for years, and everyone who has suffered abuse and may have suffered it in silence: no longer will you be able to be looked over in the streets or in your parliament. Whether it's in care homes or in your own homes, you are now at the start of being treated with the respect that you deserve. This parliament now has your back.
I say to the community of people with disabilities in Australia: yes, you have every right to feel frustrated with us and the lack of action and you have every right to call us to account, but today you should also be a little bit proud because you are setting the national agenda. This is happening because of you—because you have refused to back down, you have refused to allow abuse to take place in silence and you have refused to take no for an answer, and today belongs to you. I am very proud to have played some small part in helping make this happen. I am very proud to be part of a party that has such wonderful people in it like Senator Siewert and Senator Steele-John, who have fought for years and years and years. And I want to say to everyone who is listening and everyone who has come here: the Greens are with you in this fight, this parliament is with you in this fight, and we will not relent until justice is done.