Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


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

9:18 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019. This is an important piece of legislation which will ensure that two current royal commissions, into aged care and disability, have the capacity to hold private sessions to hear from participants. The bill responds to a request to the government from the royal commissioners and draws on the lessons from the royal commission into child sexual abuse, which made use of private sessions. Given the highly sensitive nature of these royal commissions, we believe that this is a necessary and appropriate power for the commissioners to have.

Many people who seek to give evidence to these commissions are vulnerable members of our community who have been through terrible personal experiences. It is completely understandable why they may not be comfortable appearing in public before a royal commission. It is vital that the commissions do not lose the valuable insights that these people are able to share because of their discomfort in appearing publicly. These sessions will help supplement the evidence that the commissions will collect in their normal public hearings. Obviously, private sessions are not open to the public. Importantly, information obtained in these private sessions can only be used by the commission in its report if it has been de-identified to protect the privacy of participants.

Participants in private sessions are also not cross-examined and information given in the sessions cannot be used against the person in any civil or criminal proceedings. This includes defamation action. It is also an offence to inappropriately disclose information shared at a private session by a participant. These protections should give confidence to those potential participants that they can come forward and share their insights without any fear of repercussions. All of us have probably participated in parliamentary inquiries which have used private sessions in a similar way and for the same purpose. In my experience, in my short time in this place, these can be both valuable sources of information for committees, and an important vehicle for witnesses to ensure that their story is heard.

The government will also move amendments to the bill to respond to feedback from the community about the bill. It will ensure that only royal commissioners themselves, and not delegated staff, can conduct these private sessions. These amendments are designed to give further confidence to potential participants that the sensitive information that they may wish to share with a royal commission will be heard by an appropriate person—in this case, the commissioners themselves.

These two current royal commissions have incredibly important work to do, which is already underway. There is some urgency to this bill, to ensure that these commissions can make use of private sessions as soon as possible and before their work concludes. As a result, I commend its speedy passage to the chamber.


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