Disability advocates have welcomed the Federal Government’s plan to amend the Royal Commissions Act to better protect the confidentiality of people sharing their stories with the Royal Commission, but are concerned the changes won't happen quick enough.
Attorney-General Christian Porter announced the amendments earlier this week, which will be on top of existing mechanisms to protect the identity of witnesses, including the use of private sessions, pseudonyms, or the making of ‘do not publish orders’.
"We want people in the community to engage fully with the Royal Commission," Mr Porter says.
"The amendments will ensure that the work of this Royal Commission is guided by people’s experiences and that its outcomes are based on a true reflection of those experiences."
The announcement follows the recent #MakeItSafeToSpeakCampaign by disability activists to protect the confidentiality of people telling their stories to the inquiry.
In an open letter to Mr Porter, advocates say people with disability were hesitant to speak out about abuse, because they feared their perpetrators could gain access to their evidence after the inquiry finished.
Chair of the Royal Commission the Hon Ronald Sackville AO QC requested the amendments so that people with disability would have reassurance that their information will be protected both during the life of the Royal Commission as well as after it.
“I have been aware for some time of concerns among people with disability and the wider community about the long-term confidentiality of information of those making a submission to the Royal Commission,” Mr Sackville says.
“I wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on February 14, 2020 and again on September 11, 2020 seeking amendments to the Royal Commissions Act to provide greater levels of confidentiality for submissions.”
“I believe the Federal Government’s acknowledgement of the importance of these protections will encourage further participation in the Royal Commission from people with disability whose stories are at the heart of our work.”
Mr Porter says the department will aim to introduce the amendments at the Autumn sitting in 2021, but disability advocates say this isn’t soon enough.
Director Policy and Advocacy at People with Disability Australia Romola Hollywood, who was involved in the #MakeItSafeToSpeak Campaign, says the proposed time frame “isn’t workable”.
“The good news is that we’ve been heard and the Government has recognised this as an issue and made a commitment to do something about it,” Ms Hollywood says.
“However, the proposed time frame is really not workable. It still leaves barriers in place for people to tell their stories to the Royal Commission.”
“By the time this legislation is passed (in Autumn), the Commission would have been running for two years. The Government has known about this issue for months, so we need the legislation to be brought forward in the next sitting of parliament.”
Ms Hollywood says there are many questions that would be answered and put to rest by the legislation coming forward and happening now.
“The challenge is that we don’t know what that legislation will actually look like. What is the extent of the protection? Does it cover everything that has come before the Royal Commission?”
“Until people see something on the table that addresses the very legitimate privacy concerns, it’s difficult for people to feel confident that their information will be protected beyond the life of the Royal Commission.”
The Royal Commission is due to present an interim report to the Governor-General on 30 October 2020 and its final report is due by April 2022.