Monday, 18 February 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Disability Services; Consideration of Senate Message
I have received a message from the Senate transmitting a resolution relating to a proposed royal commission to inquire into violence, abuse and neglect of people with a disability, and requesting the concurrence of the House in the resolution. I do not propose to read the message to the House. Copies have been placed on the table. Details will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.
That the message be considered immediately.
Question agreed to.
That the resolution of Senate be agreed to.
I take the issue of abuse and neglect of people with disability very seriously and so does the government I lead. We take it seriously because abuse and neglect of our most vulnerable is abhorrent. As we've seen in other areas, institutions we expect to provide care and support have often failed in providing that care. In the past, all too often we thought abuse or neglect in institutions were isolated occurrences; instead, we discovered it was systemic failure, as we noted last year in relation to the National Apology.
So we must be vigilant in ensuring the standards of care for people with disabilities are at their absolute highest. That is why our government are undertaking substantial reform to improve the treatment of people with disability. We have established a royal commission into abuse and neglect in aged-care facilities, including young people with disabilities in aged-care facilities. We were able to establish this quickly as the Commonwealth has responsibility for the funding and legislation of aged care. As well, there have been a number of inquiries looking into abuse and neglect of people with disability at both federal and state levels. These inquiries have identified many issues relevant to the disability sector and have been incorporated into the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework.
As members know, the focus of the government has been on rolling out the National Disability Insurance Scheme as well as establishing a new national quality and safeguard system to support people with disability. As part of that, the government has established new, significant and comprehensive safeguards to prevent abuse and neglect of people with disability under the NDIS. The Commonwealth provided $209 million to establish the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission to regulate the delivery of services under the NDIS and to protect the rights of people with a disability. The NDIS Commission has a number of critical functions, including registering providers, handling complaints and reportable incidents, enforcing a code of conduct for NDIS providers and workers, and national policy settings for consistent worker screening. It also has strong investigation and regulatory powers and can take tough, appropriate action including deregistration, banning orders and civil penalties. The NDIS Commission has extensive powers over both registered and unregistered providers. The NDIS and the associated quality and safeguarding arrangements are still in the process of being rolled out across Australia The NDIS Commission commenced operations in New South Wales and South Australia on 1 July 2018 and will commence in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria on 1 July 2019 and in Western Australia on 1 July 2020. This means the Commonwealth currently has very limited jurisdiction in regulation of disability services.
On Friday, I received correspondence from Senator Steele-John, which contained a draft terms of reference for the proposed royal commission into disability services. I thank him for doing so and I appreciate the very concrete and very detailed suggestions that he has been able to provide to us on this issue. They, of course, will be of assistance as we consider now this motion and move forward on this matter. I note his terms of reference seek to look into the experiences—rightly, I should stress—of people directly or indirectly affected in institutional, residential and other contexts.
As the Attorney-General noted on the weekend, a royal commission looking into past issues, backwards, into disability care is essentially then a royal commission that would look into state facilities and, at the very least, require consultation and agreement with the states and likely letters patent from the states. We understand this to be true. This should not be a royal commission that only looks at the narrow area of responsibility that has only become part of the Commonwealth's responsibility in recent times. The issues that are relevant here go back over some period of time, certainly back a decade. They principally involve the conduct of state and territory governments in the delivery of disability services, and they should, obviously, be considered in any royal commission held into this area.
I do note though, as I did in question time today, that the establishment of a royal commission was previously discussed through the Council of Australian Governments and the COAG Disability Reform Council and, at that time, states and territories did not indicate support for a royal commission. So these are hurdles that would have to be addressed. I want to keep all Australians safe and to use whatever powers we have to do so. But this work often requires us to work in partnership with the states and territories, and that's what we will have to address ourselves to going forward. Violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability outside service settings, such as at home or in the community, is mostly covered under state and territory law, so working with the states and territories in this area, looking at matters in the past as well as looking forward, will be absolutely essential. I will be seeking further advice from all states and territories to discuss this important matter of establishing a royal commission, as well as consulting directly and extensively with stakeholders about what the precise terms of reference might be and what other royal commissions, in particular the aged-care royal commission, might be able to offer as a way to address these issues.
These are the options before the government. As the House knows, calling a royal commission is a matter for the executive government. The Senate has put forward a motion and it won't be opposed by the government. It will be supported by the government. But it will be the government that then will take that matter into consideration and work through all the necessary issues to be able to do something positively in this area and to act on these issues. That's exactly what we'll do. We have no interest in making any partisanship of this issue. One of the reasons I decided to establish the royal commission into aged care is that I believed the royal commission into aged care would provide a fact base, a new platform, to support a further decade of bipartisanship on action on aged care, because I was concerned that that bipartisanship was waning. I sincerely hope that that is not the case in relation to disability care and to be able to go forward with this issue. That is the good faith in which I will engage with the issue and seek to lead the issue forward.
I will report back to the House when we have further advice on these matters and make announcements as and when the government is in a position to do so. With that, I move:
That the resolution of the Senate be agreed to.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on what he said then in terms of supporting a royal commission. First of all I'd like to acknowledge the presence of so many disability advocates in the gallery. You are most welcome. Many of you have waited seven or 10 years—indeed, some of you all your life—for this discussion, so I understand that today is a good day for you and I acknowledge that but for you we wouldn't be having this discussion here today. I acknowledge our guest from the Senate, too. I congratulate you on your advocacy as well, Senator Steele-John.
The problem of disability and the way we let people suffer abuse, neglect and violence is not a new problem. When I was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services I thought I'd seen disadvantage in Australia's workplaces, but nothing prepared me for what I encountered with the second-class existence that people with disabilities and their carers among us in this country were all too often having. There is no doubt in my mind that there have been plenty of reports into how we prevent the abuse and neglect of people with disability, but I was persuaded by the report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee that was released in November 2015. Its first recommendation—so we've now known this for over three years—was:
The committee recommends that a Royal Commission into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability be called, with terms of reference to be determined in consultation with people with disability, their families and supporters, and disability organisations.
The abuse and mistreatment of people with disability is Australia's hidden shame. We have been on notice about the issues for a very long time. I am pleased that by May 2017 Labor had joined the call, which others had been calling for, for a royal commission and I'm pleased now that the parliament's voting this way. The reason I'm pleased is that we need to address the core reason that people with disability suffer disproportionate abuse, neglect and violence. It's because, as a nation, despite progress we might have made on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other things, we still devalue people with disability. We must recognise that one of the fault lines in this country about the way we treat people with disability is not that we're ungenerous to family members, not that we're ungenerous generally to people doing it hard, but that for some Australians the thought of people with disability is deeply uncomfortable because they're unfamiliar. They devalue people with disability; they don't understand the lives that people with disability have. I believe that this royal commission must address that problem. I believe that, with the way we talk about royal commission and people with disability, it can't be talking about people with disability; it must be talking to people with disability.
I think we have to recognise that all too often, for perhaps the best of reasons, this country has dehumanised people with disability. We take away their legal capacity to make decisions. We use the prism of protection. We infantilise people with disability. We use benign language and a benign approach quite often, and we seek to control them. But the problem with that approach—if we don't treat people with disability as true equals and if we let their impairment define their whole persona and their whole identity—is that once we start engaging in that attitude of control then we create the ability for malicious control to occur, where people can exert untoward and inappropriate control over people's lives. Once we have a debate where we don't acknowledge the legal capacity of people with disability or their legal identity, then we make decisions about their life. We make decisions where they live. We make decisions who they live with. We make decision about what they can eat, about what they can see and about control of their bodies. None of this is easy or comfortable.
What I also understood, from the time when I was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services, is that in amongst Australia, the lucky country, every night there are literally tens of thousands—indeed, hundreds of thousands—of parents of adults living with a disability. These parents are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they wonder who on earth will protect them, look after them, respect them and love them when they no longer can—this midnight anxiety. The National Disability Insurance Scheme was an endeavour to provide greater control to redefine people with disabilities from charity to consumers and to give families economic power in the relationship they have with the system. But we know that abuse going on. If we can't tell you exactly where and when, unfortunately, we can be absolutely certain that it is going on right now. It can be done in the best of interests or it can just be straight-out malice and violence.
Therefore, we need to have this royal commission. It needs to be broad. It needs to go to education, it needs to go to health and it needs to go to rehabilitation. We need to look at the situation of Indigenous people living with disability in our country. It needs to go to the ability to access services in remote, provincial and regional Australia. Not only does it need to go to the way that institutions interact with people with disability but it needs to also just go to the way people with disability are treated in our community generally.
This is a very politically contested time in Australia's politics, as we end the 45th Parliament. There was debate last week about what was the right thing to do and what was the wrong thing to do. I'm unequivocal that what we're doing today is the right thing to do. Of course, only the executive can implement a royal commission. We understand that. What I would just say to the government is that this is a good step forward. But what we also need to do is provide a time line. Yes, the states and territories need to provide their cooperation. But it wouldn't be the first time that a state or territory said no to a Commonwealth government and the Commonwealth steamed ahead. I accept that if there needs to be some discussion, that's good. But I really think we're capable of allocating a budget or working out how much it costs. We have allocated, if we form a government, $26 million. But if the government has a different view about a higher quantum, we obviously are not going to quibble with that.
What we also have made clear is that people with disability need to be at the centre of the drawing up of the terms of reference. We get that. That's one reason why—whilst Labor did put out principles, and we did two years ago—we want to hear the voices of the voiceless in this debate. This afternoon's resolution is a good resolution. I'm really pleased. I have a particular passion and interest in terms of disability and for what people with disability have taught me. In some ways, this is us giving back. This proposition has been on the books for too long. I am very pleased that we are doing it, but I do so on the basis that we recognise that this isn't just about examining a particular institution; we need people to go through their historical experiences. People who have never been heard deserve that chance to tell their story.
Fundamentally, I and Labor are voting for this royal commission because it's the right thing to do and because the evidence says it's the right thing to do. It has been our stated policy for the best part of two years to do this. But, even beyond all of that, we must redefine Australia's relationship with Australians who live with disability. We've got to revalue and re-evaluate our relationship. We've got to recognise that, whilst we are a nation that devalues people with disability, we will never get to the root cause of violence and the prevention of violence, abuse and neglect. But this is a very good moment and I'm very pleased to support it.
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.
We need a royal commission not to hear the voices of people in this chamber but to hear the voices of the people who are sitting in the galleries and the many thousands like them. We need a royal commission to hear the voices of people with disabilities, and their families, carers and advocates. To the people here in the chamber today, I say: welcome to you all.
On Saturday just gone, the Leader of the Opposition and I met with people with a disability and their families, who told us yet again why a royal commission is needed. There was Paula and Peter Curotte, who told us how their son Alexander was smothered under a blanket and as a result has hypoxic brain injury and can no longer walk. We met Mark Modra, who told us that the abuse suffered by his son, Luke, still haunts him years and years later. We met Debra Frith, who told us how her son was locked in a cupboard at school, and, just recently, tied up with rope, and was being denied an education. We met Danny, a remarkable young man, who told us what it was like to be bullied at school, to have things thrown at you and to be called terrible names—and, most heartbreaking of all, for nothing to be done about it.
We need a royal commission to hear these stories. It is essential to healing the past and making much-needed improvements for the future. It is a national shame. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, a royal commission is the 'king of all inquiries', and nothing less will do. A royal commission is necessary because it will provide people with disability, like you, and their families and carers with an opportunity to tell your stories at the highest level, and seek justice. A royal commission becomes part of the national healing process. A royal commission will improve services and supports in the future, including fixing some of the problems with the rollout of the NDIS. It must be a dedicated royal commission. It must be broad ranging, covering education, health, mental health and justice, and it must be able to inquire into historic abuse as well as make recommendations for improvements for the future—and the terms of reference will be worked out with you.
We know that people with disability experience much higher rates of violence than the rest of the community. It is 80 to 90 per cent for women with disability, and it is more than three times more likely for children with disability. But people with disability are often treated as unreliable witnesses, and, too often, perpetrators have been allowed to continue to work with vulnerable people. A royal commission will expose this, and a royal commission can stop this. In 2017, 163 community groups, including St Vincent de Paul, Anglicare and Amnesty International, called on the Liberals to establish this royal commission. I won't go through the history; I think it has been well documented.
In these last few minutes of my contribution, I want to recognise shadow minister Carol Brown, from the other place, who has done remarkable work on this issue over many years. Thank you so much, Carol. I know the community thanks you as well.
I say to people with disability: we believe you, we need to hear your stories, and thank you for making the journey today. Not only do we need to hear your stories; the country needs to hear your stories. You have been brave, you have been powerful and you have led the way for establishing this royal commission. This royal commission must be broad ranging, it must look into historical abuse and it must cover not just institutions but also homes and other places you are, and that's what we are committed to. We are committed to a proper, full, standalone royal commission because this issue, and you, deserve nothing less.
I say to the advocates here with us today: this is a very, very significant day. You and I know how long we've all been talking about the importance of this royal commission. But today is not enough—it's not enough. We actually need the terms of reference finalised. We need the royal commission announced. We need to get it started. Today is a good start, but it is not enough.
I think, as all of us who have lived through the experience of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse know, a royal commission is a place where the truth can be told but also where justice can be found. People with disability who have been abused need to find that place where they can tell their stories, where they will be believed and, also, where justice can be found. That is so important for people with disability.
It is also the case that a royal commission will be the guiding light for the future. We want to see a royal commission that will outline how people with disability can live, work and be educated in places that will be safe. Not closed places: not closed places of housing, not closed schools and not closed institutions where what goes on can't be seen. That's why we need a royal commission; to make clear to those who set up the places where people are going to be cared for in the future—the places that people with disability themselves control—that these are open places and that they are places where people can get the support and care that they need and get it in a way that people with disability themselves determine.
We know how important it is that people with disability determine these terms of reference, because without that they won't have the control and the faith in this royal commission that they seek. That is what the government needs to take the most seriously. People with disability themselves must guide this royal commission. That is what we commit to today. That is what we want to see and that is what we will lend our support to. I would say to the government that, of course, we appreciate very much the commitment that has been given today, but, please, hasten with people with disability. Get this royal commission established; it needs to be done for the sake of justice.
Question agreed to.