The first public hearing of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability kicked off in Brisbane today, highlighting the importance and scope of the inquiry.
Although no testimonials were heard, it was the first time the full bench of the Commission presented with statements made by the Chair of the Royal Commission, the Honourable Ronald Sackville AO QC; Commissioners, Andrea Mason OAM and Alastair McEwin AM and Senior Counsel Assisting, Rebecca Treston QC.
It also follows an announcement by Minister for Families and Social Services, Anne Ruston, of a seventh Commissioner, the Honourable Roslyn Atkinson AO.
Mr Sackville says the inquiry is the result of the tireless campaign by people with disability and their supporters.
“The most important part of the Royal Commission’s work is our engagement with people with disability, their families and supporters.
“Your contributions will be the heart and soul of this Royal Commission ... you are the key to its success.”
Mr Sackville says the Commissioners are wary of the magnitude and complexity of the task ahead of them.
“We are conscious that the disability community and their supporters, as well as the wider Australian community, have extremely high expectations of this Royal Commission,” he explains.
“People want and expect real change.
“We have to ensure that unheard voices are finally heard.”
Commissioner Andrea Mason OAM highlighted the importance of the Royal Commission to First Nations People and mentioned the “uncomfortable truths” that lay ahead in her opening statement.
“I want to reassure all First Nations People, their carers and advocates that this Royal Commission, with all of its powers and protections, is a safe place for you to speak your truth,” promises Ms Mason.
“We are here for you.”
Commissioner Alastair McEwin AM also acknowledges the hard work of the disability community in establishing the national inquiry.
“The Royal Commission came about through many years of advocacy by people with disability and their allies,’ he says.
“We pay tribute to their efforts to shine a spotlight on this issue. We say to them the establishment of this Royal Commission is your achievement.
“Your human rights are and will be at the heart of everything we do at this Royal Commission.
“It is a privilege to be one of the two Commissioners with disability.”
Senior Counsel Assisting Rebecca Treston GC explains, “Every 10 minutes someone with profound or severe disability experiences physical or sexual violence.”
She says the Commission will look to hold one or two public hearings before the end of the year, potentially focusing on education and learning and homes and living, including the use of restrictive practices, exclusion of students with disability from the education system and issues arising from the types of housing available to people with disability.
Chief Executive Officer of People with Disability Australia (PWDA), Jeff Smith, says today’s historic opening of the Royal Commission is the result of decades of work from people with disability, who have not had their voices heard.
“The terrible toll that violence and abuse has taken on people with disability will finally be brought to light, as people with disability start to tell their stories to the Commission,” he says.
“The Disability Royal Commission needs to be the start of the significant changes that are needed to stop the violence against us, such as ending segregation and discrimination against us.”
Mr Smith says PWDA would be listening with interest to hear how the Disability Royal Commission will be managing the conflicts of interest of two of the Commissioners, which many disability organisations and individuals have raised concerns about over the last couple months.
“This is something we will continue to keep an eye on, as the Commission unfolds.”
People with disability will be able to make submissions in their own first language, including Auslan and Indigenous languages, and the inquiry is also investigating options to receive video and audio submissions.
The Government is providing $119 million in funding for free and independent support services are available for people with disability who are engaged with or impacted by the Royal Commission.
Mr Smith says, “We know that there are many people with disability around the country who are writing their submissions right now, and sending them into the Commission.”
“It is vital that the Disability Royal Commission accepts submissions in whatever form they come in and understands that people with disability will tell their stories about the abuse they have experienced in a variety of ways.
“We know how important it will be to make sure that people with disability have the legal, advocacy and counselling support they will need to talk about what happened to them safely and without being re-traumatised.”
Speaking of the newest Commissioner, the Hon Roslyn Atkinson AO, Minister Ruston says Ms Atkinson brings a wealth of experience to the role, serving as a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland for over twenty years.
Ms Ruston explains, “She was involved in a landmark decision on disability access and discrimination at the very place where the first hearing will be held, the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
“Ms Atkinson’s experience adds to an already diverse panel of Commissioners with the knowledge and skills in judicial, policy, lived experience of disability and Indigenous matters who will best represent the interests of all Australians with disability and their families.”
Chair of the Commission, Mr Sackville says the inquiry will hold hearings in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide, with the first public hearing expected to take place later this year.
Recognising the concerns around conflicts of interest, he says he will not allow a Commissioner to participate in a hearing and its subsequent report if he feels it will be a conflict of interest.
“Under no circumstance will anyone be asked to tell their story to a Commissioner with whom they don’t feel comfortable,” Mr Sackville stresses.
You can watch the re-watch live stream of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability here.