New appointment to disability inquiry amid call for commissioners to stand down

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 16, 2019

Source: Unsplash

Roslyn Atkinson has been appointed as the seventh commissioner for the disability royal commission, as disability advocates have threatened to boycott the inquiry.

The first public sitting for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability will be held in Brisbane today.

Atkinson has the experience needed to undertake the role, according to Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston.

“Ms Atkinson served as a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland for over twenty years and was involved in many high profile and civil criminal trials,” she said.

“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.”

Meanwhile, two of the commissioners have been urged to stand down due to a perceived conflict of interest.

Convener of the Disability Royal Commission Action Group Craig Wallace said he would boycott the inquiry if two former public servants, John Ryan and Barbara Bennett, remain in their commissioner roles.

“I’m not making any statements that either commissioners Bennett or Ryan were involved or contributed to the neglect of disabled people as individuals,” he told AM.

“But what they did is that they were both in charge of and managed systems where people with disabilities have experienced abuse … and that’s what makes them unacceptable appointments.”

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. According to a statement released on the royal commission website, Bennett and Ryan will not hear evidence if it relates to their former roles.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John has voiced his support for anyone who wishes to boycott the inquiry.

“You shouldn’t ask people to give evidence to folks in a dynamic where they feel as though they’re being made to disclose to their abusers,” he said.

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

Labor disability spokesperson Bill Shorten recently called for Ryan and Bennett to be sacked due to their “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.

Back in April, almost 60 groups representing people with disabilities published an open letter expressing their concerns with the commissioners.

“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.”

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