Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


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

9:21 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019. This bill seeks to create a legislative framework that allows for private sessions to take place during royal commissions. While the Greens support the central tenet of the bill, we are concerned about the impact that certain provisions may have on survivors.

We are particularly concerned that these provisions are a departure from past royal commissions. This includes the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where commissioners were the only ones allowed to undertake private sessions. Having spent a great deal of time working with survivors and people that did give evidence to that royal commission, I know how profoundly important it was for people to be able to talk directly to the commissioners about their lived experience. I'm sure most people in this chamber know that for some people it was the first time they were able to talk to somebody of such importance about their lived experience—or even to talk about it at all. So I know, from talking to survivors, how important it is that people have the capacity to talk directly about their deepest, darkest trauma to commissioners themselves.

By allowing assistant commissioners and senior staff to undertake private sessions, we are effectively creating what would be a three-tiered system for giving testimony, therefore creating inequality amongst those who give testimony in the form of a private session. This appears to be an attempt by government to address a capacity issue. We contend that, if there is a capacity issue, particularly for the disability royal commission, then this should be addressed through expanding the panel of commissioners. It is unjustifiable to try and address a capacity issue by creating a three-tiered system that will adversely affect the healing process of survivors. We agree that there could be a capacity issue with the disability royal commission. Only six commissioners have been appointed, two of whom have substantial conflicts of interest, as this chamber has heard on several occasions. This will affect their ability to be involved with the commission. And we know that there will likely be upwards of 10,000 submissions made. If this does occur, the government needs to increase the number of commissioners.

In our discussions with the community it was overwhelmingly clear that the concerns with the legislation as originally proposed have the potential to adversely affect survivors and diminish the significant impact that having a private session before a commissioner has. Matthew Bowden of PWDA made that clear to us when he said, 'There is something that comes from the royal commission communicating to the survivor that they are important enough and that they matter to Australia to the point that a commissioner will spend this time, one on one, with them and that this is their time and theirs only.' All of that would be lost if we had this delegated to senior staff of the royal commission, however qualified or compassionate they are.

It is unclear what the grounds are for someone being heard by a commissioner versus someone being heard by a senior staff member. Earlier today, the government circulated an amendment which amends provisions of the bill which delegate authority to conduct a private session to assistant commissioners or senior staff of the commission. We are supportive of this amendment as it seeks to remedy these issues with the potential for a three-tiered system of giving testimony.


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