New legislation will allow royal commission evidence to be given in private

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday August 1, 2019

Source: Getty Images

Legislation has been passed that will allow royal commissions to hear evidence from individuals in private, according to Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ben Morton.

In a statement released this week, Morton said the decision will empower people to tell their stories and assist royal commissions. 

“The Aged Care and Disability Royal Commissions are examining challenging and confronting issues,” he said. 

“It might take courage for individuals to come forward – especially for those having to relive difficult memories.

“Today’s legislation means that important stories will not be lost and that more people will be able to provide information in a private and supported environment.” 

Morton added that private sessions were key during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The government will make a recommendation to the Governor-General that private sessions be used by the aged care royal commission and the disability royal commission.

The announcement came after former Labor leader Bill Shorten called for two former senior public servants involved with the disability royal commission to be sacked. 

The Labor spokesperson on the National Disability Insurance Scheme said that commissioners John Ryan and Barbara Bennett have a “stark conflict of interest”.

“The making of these arrangements where commissioners will go in and out of hearings depending on whether they have a conflict at the time recognises that there is a problem,” he said.

Bennett was the deputy secretary for families and communities at the Department of Social Services before she was recruited to sit on the royal commission, while Ryan was previously a Liberal politician and the NSW shadow minister for disability. He has also held senior roles managing NSW government disability support programs and administering policy related to group homes for people with disabilities.

Back in April, almost 60 groups representing people with disabilities published an open letter calling on Bennett and Ryan to step down from the royal commission for the same reasons.

“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,” the letter published by Disabled People’s Organisations Australia said.

“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 letter suggested that witnesses may not be comfortable with speaking if Bennett and Ryan stayed. Morton’s announcement of allowing private sessions for evidence did not reference the potential conflicts of interest.

However, a meeting between Royal Commissioners on 19 June did discuss the matter.

According to a statement released on the royal commission website, commissioners met to declare their “real, perceived and potential conflicts of interest” and considered a review of their potential impacts, as well as when it might be necessary for a commissioner to excuse themselves from participation.

“Generally, where individual commissioners have previously been engaged in a statutory or public sector position which intersected with the work or potential work of the commission, then that intersection was clearly identified and noted and will be acted upon when, and if, such an issue arises at any time during the life of the royal commission,” the statement said.

In relation to Ryan and Bennett, the meeting noted that:

To avoid any perceived or potential conflict of interest that may arise due to the senior role [Bennett] held in the Department of Social Service, she will not be involved in hearings in which officials from the Department of Social Service provide evidence to the royal commission.”

“[Ryan] was employed in the NSW public sector in variously named departments, including the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, and due to his close working relationships with senior operational staff in those Departments, he will not participate in any dealings in the royal commission that involve NSW Government departments as a disability service or accommodation provider or any organisation with which he had a working relationship as disability accommodation providers or in relation to land transfers to disability service providers.”

The meeting also acknowledged the potential conflicts of interest in regards to:

  • Chair, Ronald Sackville — “There is nothing in his professional life or associations that would create a conflict or potential conflict of interest,” the meeting concluded.
  • Commissioner Rhonda Galbally — Galbally was a member of the board of the National Disability Insurance Agency and a principal member of the Independent Advisory Council. She will not participate in the formulation of recommendations that focus on current policies and operations of the NDIS.
  • Commissioner Andrea Mason — As Mason was CEO of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, the meeting deemed that “there may be a limited perceived conflict of interest if the implementation of the NDIS for individual NPY clients arises as an issue in any form of hearing”.
  • Commissioner Alastair McEwin — McEwin was the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, so “to avoid any perceptions of a conflict of interest, he will not participate in the formulation of any recommendations that focus on the current powers and operations of the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the role and function of the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, or the current coverage and operation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992”.

A Greens and Labor motion backing concerns about Ryan and Bennett was passed by the senate last week, with the support of One Nation, Centre Alliance, and independent Jacqui Lambie.

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