Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


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

9:31 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am particularly pleased to be able to make a contribution to the debate this evening on the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019. I commence by recording that Labor supports the Royal Commissions Amendment (Private Sessions) Bill 2019. The reasons that we want to support this bill, which will enable the royal commission to hold private sessions where a regulation is made under the Royal Commissions Act authorising it to do so, is that it is the right thing to do if one understands what a participatory democracy might look like.

Just today I was having a conversation with some of my colleagues about the challenges embedded in some legislation that's about to come before us around people's participation in our democracy. Being a former teacher and being in school and teaching in the period when the concept of civics and citizenship has been discussed widely and reported on widely, I note that there is a great gap between teaching civics—the design and shape of our particular democracy in Australia—and citizenship. What it is about this bill that particularly appeals to me is that it is an active making of law, in our time here in the parliament, that acknowledges that citizenship and citizens' participation in parliamentary processes and formal processes of lawmaking and truth-telling in our country is not beyond our capacity to enable. That's why I think this particular piece of legislation is particularly important.

In 2013, when I was a member in the other place, I was very proud to be part of the Gillard government, which amended the Royal Commissions Act 1902 to allow the chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to authorise a fellow commissioner to hold a private session to receive information from victims and others affected by child sexual abuse. That is our great shame, not just as a nation but as human beings—that the sort of truth-telling we've had about the incredible abuse of young people in institutional care is now a matter of record. But, happily, it is a matter of record that is both private and appropriately enabled and public in ways that protected individuals but allowed the truth to be told. And that is what is at the heart of this piece of legislation that we're debating this evening. In effect, this bill would extend the private sessions regime that applied to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and to other royal commissions, including the disability and aged care royal commissions.

A traditional royal commission hearing setting is quite a formal place. For many people, it's the kind of encounter with the institutions that support democracy that they might never have seen, never have known, never have experienced and never have developed the skills to manage. So it's important that we provide ways to participate in our democracy that are not so far a stretch for ordinary citizens that they feel they can't participate. In fact, I recall in a number of hearings that we had around mental health—particularly, I'm recalling one in Sydney when we were talking about the impact of bullying in the workplace—that we were able to allow an open mic session at the end to allow people to come forward and put on the record their experience. Now, that was in a public forum and in a public setting. We took a small amount of in camera hearings from people speaking about their experience, but predominantly those who stepped forward were comfortable enough and determined enough to tell their story in a public place so that we could have the benefit of their lived experience to contribute to the way in which we might discern and determine policy going forward.

One of the things that good teachers across this country know is that not everybody in a classroom who has a view has the skills and capacity to speak into that classroom space. Those of us who enjoyed school—and certainly those of us in this chamber who quite like the sound of our own voices!—might have been quite comfortable speaking in the public place of a classroom. But for many young people in schools, the speech part of English language development—reading, writing, speaking and listening—is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, being in a room with more than just yourself is considered a form of public speaking. When you're speaking in a formal situation, such as giving evidence to a royal commission, not only is it predominantly in a public setting for the benefit of the public knowledge and the public policymaking that can be done but it is also there for the catharsis, sometimes, of the individual who wishes to put on the record and perhaps to distance themselves in some way from the action that they're reporting and tell the truth in the public place. Levels of competency to do that vary greatly across the country amongst Australians. That's why this innovation in our time as lawmakers with discernment to allow for private sessions is a significant step forward.

We know that private sessions in the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse allowed them to hear from survivors and victims about their experience of abuse in a private and safe setting, which was the only setting for those particular people who had truth to tell, who were courageous enough to come forward, but didn't need or didn't seek or perhaps couldn't survive the further trauma of the experience of telling their story publicly. For many survivors, we know that telling their story is a deeply personal and sometimes traumatic experience. But, thanks to the private sessions that were enabled in the course of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, that commission was actually able to hear over 8,000 personal stories in private sessions. I do wonder, from a mental health point of view, how challenging that was for both the participants in the telling of their stories and the participants in the receiving of those stories, because some of the evidence that has been made public is chilling.

It's hard to believe that men and women could be so inhumane as to inflict such violence on young people in their care. It's a great shame on our nation. It was heartbreaking for us as Australians to hear these stories, but the power of telling your story as one of those 8,000 people, where a private session was an option, is something that we as lawmakers learned from, because we knew that it did good work for the citizens of this country not only in what it revealed and enabled us to understand better but also in what it allowed those survivors to claim, to own and to have power over. For some of the survivors who put their story on the record, telling their story in one of those private sessions was the first time in their life that they'd actually been able to tell someone about their abuse—the first time! For others, it was perhaps not the first time of telling their story but the first time that someone in a position of authority had given value to their story by making the space to sit and listen. One survivor told the royal commission:

After 50 years I finally feel I've been heard. People have listened to me before, but no one has really heard me.

There is some significant detail in the legislation that's before us. The particular regime that's being proposed tonight is very likely to prove equally valuable to people with a disability and people living in aged care who have been subject to abuse. It's the experience of that former royal commission, with its significant recommendations, that's led us to be hopeful that that is the case. This legislation is like some other significant pieces of legislation that are being considered for listing on the Notice Paper, some that are already on the Notice Paper and some that are subject to review by the Senate. This bill does have human rights implications. I noticed in the explanatory memorandum that it particularly invokes article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These go to the freedom provisions within the ICCPR to honour Australia's commitment to enacting legislation that provides that:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

This right may 'be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary, on limited grounds', including 'for respect of the rights or reputations of others.'

I am pleased that this piece of legislation, as I see it, does enable voice in a range of ways in the context of a private hearing. Further, the purpose of these private sessions doesn't restrict the individual's rights to freedom in terms of the mode in which they're able to provide their story. There are limits that will be wrapped around this piece of legislation. As some of the former contributors to the debate this evening have indicated, there will be protections to make sure that the disclosure of information that's received in private is properly managed. Importantly, the proposal is that it treats records containing information obtained at or given for the purposes of a private session in the same way as census information so that these records would come into the open-access period, under the Archives Act 1983, 99 years after the year the record came into existence; that refers to section 6OM as amended by items 39 and 40 of schedule 1 to the bill. Why is this important? When the sensible outreach into the community of survivors of child sexual abuse was achieved, there were some concerns about what would happen to that information that was received in private, in terms of reputational damage to others that might not be appropriate to have on the public record and what would happen to it. I am pleased that the legislation goes to some detail with regard to the security of that information.

For further confidence, this bill, in the same schedule, excludes the right of access under the Freedom of Information Act to documents containing information obtained at or given for the purposes of a private session. That is also an important thing for people to know. If I was in a situation where I had a truth to tell, I know that I might not feel comfortable about doing it in a public place. That could be the final thing to dissuade me from telling it—if I thought somebody could come and find that information—particularly if I've experienced any sort of trauma and felt a degree of vulnerability. If we put ourselves in the shoes of those who participated in the first major inquiry, which I've referred to a number of times now, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse—to the upcoming findings that we should expect with regard to disability and to abuse of people in aged-care settings—this provision in this bill is an important one to help give them the confidence that not only is the privacy of what they say contained within the room but the information that they share in that room is protected for 99 years. Even the most solicitous person who might come after information could not access that information through freedom-of-information laws. This is another very important part of this particular piece of legislation.

In closing, we know that in our country at this time there are a significant number of people in positions of authority who have the option to make ethical choices for the benefits of others or unethical choices, sometimes in the pursuit of profit over the dignity of people. While this particular piece of legislation allows truth-telling after the fact, we shouldn't miss this opportunity to make it known that the Australian parliament, as the representative of the people of this country, abhors the evidence of those 8,000 survivors with regard to child sexual abuse that it had to put on the record. The abuse of people with disability, the abuse of people in an aged-care setting, is something that is completely at odds with the spirit of the good people of this nation. Given the failings of humans, and, sadly, the recorded propensity for people in our midst to choose abuse over support, I'm pleased to support this legislation because it does good work in terms of the citizenship of this country and provides for a more civilised nation.


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