Almost 60 groups representing people with disabilities say public servants are too conflicted to be effective as royal commissioners tasked with shining a light on violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation suffered by their constituents.
In an open letter, they ask commissioners Barbara Bennett and John Ryan to step down from the royal commission on the basis that both have held senior roles in the main federal and NSW government agencies that could come under scrutiny during the inquiry.
The intervention adds considerable weight to comments made on Friday by the Greens spokesperson for disability rights, Senator Jordon Steele-John, and published by the Australian Financial Review just as the appointments were officially announced.
Bennett was plucked from her position as deputy secretary for families and communities at the Department of Social Services to sit on the royal commission.
Ryan is a former Liberal politician who was NSW shadow minister for disability and sat in the state’s upper house for about 15 years until 2007, when he made the unusual transition into the state public service.
Since then he has held senior roles managing NSW government disability support programs and administering the policy affecting state-run group homes for disabled people. It is this role that should disqualify him, according to the letter, published by Disabled People’s Organisations Australia on Monday.
“We understand that Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett are respected public servants who sought to make a positive contribution to ending abuse and violence through this Royal Commission.
“However, we believe this work would be best served if they acknowledged their real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest and step aside. We call upon them to do this today in the best interests of people with disability, and the integrity of our Royal Commission.”
The open letter takes issue with Ryan’s involvement in “oversight of residential care programs for people with disability in NSW” as a public servant for over a decade but does not mention his political past.
“Ms Bennett … at various times oversaw the Commonwealth workplace health and compensation scheme, the National Redress Scheme, welfare, family safety, housing and homelessness, and grants to the disability sector,” it adds.
“DSS also funds and oversees disability services and Australian Disability Enterprises.
“Therefore, both had responsibility for organisations that are likely to come under significant scrutiny by our Royal Commission. As such, their involvement raises major concerns about their conflict of interest, whether potential, perceived or real.”
The letter also suggests witnesses might not be as comfortable speaking openly in the inquiry if Bennett and Ryan remained.
“We need to have complete confidence that our Royal Commission is a place where we can give evidence safely. People with disability must be able to tell our stories to Commissioners, knowing that we can seek and receive justice from them and the body they represent.
“We need to feel safe in telling our stories, some of which involve the public institutions and bureaucracies that have been responsible for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.”
Friday: government stands by appointments
Social Services Minister Paul Fletcher (pictured) told the Financial Review the government would not rescind the appointments and defended their “validity” in a brief statement published by the newspaper.
“The two individuals in question have both been recognised for their significant contribution in their fields, as evidence by their receipt of the Public Service Medal and Member of the Order of Australia,” Fletcher’s spokesperson said.
Steele-John had said he was not questioning their qualifications and the report did not say anything about the government sacking the pair.
He suggested Ryan and Bennett voluntarily recuse themselves after reflecting on potential conflicts of interest, both real and perceived. The organisations and individuals behind the open letter urge them to listen and say they have put forward plenty of “highly respected and well qualified people with disability, and [their] supporters” as potential commissioners.
Morrison told journalists on Friday morning the government went about “extensive consultation throughout the sectors on the various skills and expertise that needed to be brought into the role of those commissioners” and he thought the appointments covered all the bases.
“Importantly, the panel of six commissioners include those with a lived experience of disability as well as judicial and policy expertise and including Indigenous leadership,” the PM said.
“I want to thank all those commissioners who have agreed to take on this incredibly important task. The commission is expected to run for three years, with the final report by the end of April 2022, with an interim report to be provided by the end of October of 2020.”
The government was also quick to fill a gap created at the Australian Human Rights Commission by the appointment of former disability discrimination commissioner Alastair McEwin to the royal commission, appointing barrister Ben Gauntlett to the position on the same day. Attorney-General Christian Porter said in a statement:
“Mr Gauntlett has extensive legal experience as a barrister in Victoria and Western Australia and will bring a range of skills and experience to the role, including lived experience with disability.
“Prior to his role as a barrister, Mr Gauntlett worked at Freehills for four years in Dispute Resolution. He was an associate to The Honourable Justice Kenneth Hayne AC at the High Court of Australia and also Counsel Assisting the Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth.”