Opening remarks – Advocates workshop

First let me welcome each of you warmly to this workshop. I would like to express my sincere appreciation and that of my fellow Commissioners present today at your willingness to attend the Workshop and to give us the benefit of your knowledge of and long experience with the disability sector.

Today is actually an auspicious occasion. The Commissioners were formally appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Executive Council on 4 April 2019, just before the recent election was called.  But we really began our work at the beginning of May. Since then all Commissioners and staff have worked extremely hard on the truly formidable task of establishing, more or less from scratch, a structure within which the Commission can operate effectively to discharge the responsibilities conferred by the terms of reference.

This is the first official consultation undertaken by the Commission. It is entirely appropriate and of great symbolic significance that it should include prominent disability advocates and people who have lived experience with disability. It is critical that our work as Commissioners be informed by your views and the views of others who have worked so hard to establish the Royal Commission. You have a deep understanding of the issues we have to examine and we shall rely heavily on your understanding.

From my personal point of view, I recognise that I have a great deal to learn about the issues confronting people with disability. But I have no doubt that I will be considerably better informed at the end of the proceedings than I am at this moment. I thank you again for participating in this Workshop.

It is a great privilege but also a very heavy responsibility to Chair the Royal Commission. Let me introduce the Commissioners who share both the privilege and the responsibility and who are here today:

  • Commissioner Rhonda Galbally AC is well known to all of you for her extraordinary work on behalf of people with disability over many years. The award of the highest honour that Australia can bestow (now that knighthoods and damehoods have been abolished) is a testament to her achievements. Rhonda will conduct the proceedings once I have finished my fleeting moment in the spotlight.
  • Commissioner Barbara Bennett PSM, has had an extensive career in social policy. Among many other achievements in 2016 she delivered the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women. She has also played an important role in shaping the Government's response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (CARC).
  • Commissioner Andrea Mason OAM will have primary responsibility for shaping the Commission's approach to indigenous people with disability. Andrea is, as most of you will know, highly respected within the indigenous community and extremely well equipped to perform this very demanding and sensitive role. I should record that Andrea's appointment to the Royal Commission was expressly welcomed by the Northern Territory Government when it endorsed the establishment of the Commission.
  • Commissioner Alastair McEwin AM received a very well deserved honour in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours List. The award recognises his indefatigable work in promoting the human rights of people with disability. He has done so in his capacity as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission but also in many roles prior to his appointment to that Commission.

We know that disability advocacy groups and people with disability – including the people in this room – have fought long and hard to have this Royal Commission established. We also know that you, like many others in the disability community, have high expectations of what the Commission can achieve. As we said in the letter of invitation to you, the Commission offers a genuine opportunity for transformational change that in the language of the terms of reference, "supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation".

As Commissioner McEwin has frequently said at our meetings, there is a widespread expectation that this time real change will be brought about. This will require practical effect to be given to the rights-based approach expressed in international instruments, notably the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as in domestic legislation and indeed in our terms of reference.

Let me say something about the possibilities of this Commission achieving transformational change. Australia is by no means a perfect society but Australians have demonstrated a willingness over time to embrace seismic shifts in social attitudes. If I may, I would like to illustrate this from my own experience in the formulation of social policy.

The other day I received an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary of a body now known as the Council for Single Mothers and their Children. Early in my academic career I undertook research and published papers on the lack of rights enjoyed by a group then described as illegitimate children – that is, children born out of wedlock. That work contributed in a modest way to the enactment of the Status of Children legislation which abolished the legal disadvantages to which children born outside marriage were subject.

The academic work also I believe contributed to ending a state of affairs where women giving birth to children out of wedlock were denied social welfare payments and thus were effectively forced to give up their children for adoption. It seems inconceivable that well within living memory children in this country and their mothers could be tainted legally, financially and socially by the accident of whether or not the children happened to have been born within a marriage.

In the 1980s as the Chair of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission I was involved in the preparation of a report on the law relating to what were call "De Facto Relationships" (that is a man and a woman living together in a domestic relationship). This led directly to legislation in New South Wales and later, in other jurisdictions, eliminating many of the gross injustices faced, particularly by women, when a domestic relationship broke down.

As social attitudes towards same sex relationships became more accepting, the legislation governing de facto relationships was extended to same sex couples. Over a relatively short period of time attitudes toward same sex relationships changed so dramatically that within the last two years this country voted overwhelmingly to endorse Commonwealth legislation recognising same sex marriage. Who would have thought 20 or even 15 years ago that Australians would accept such a fundamental redefinition of the traditional concept of marriage?

Of course we are all familiar with the astonishing changes that have occurred in our way of life within a few years. Perhaps the most obvious is the breathtaking development of post-industrial technology which among a multitude of other effects, has had profound implications for many people with disability, such as people who are visually impaired or hearing impaired.

There have been many other transformational changes in social attitudes in this country. Think of the changed role of women in Australia and the virtually universal contemporary recognition of the urgent need to address and ultimately eliminate the scourge of domestic violence.

Some of these transformations have been brought about or at least hastened very substantially by Royal Commissions. The clearest example is the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (CARC) that took place over five years. I confess to having been a little sceptical at the outset as to what CARC would achieve, but it succeeded beyond all expectations. Its principal success was in forcing the wider community to acknowledge the astonishing extent of child sexual abuse and the complicity of some of the most trusted institutions in Australia in allowing the abuse to occur. This does not mean that all child sexual abuse has now been eliminated, but on any view it is highly unlikely that anything remotely like that what happened in so many institutions over so many decades could ever happen again. The Royal Commission has brought about transformational change.

We are seeking transformational change in societal attitudes towards people with disability but we are under no illusion as to the magnitude and difficulty of the task. The terms of reference are very wide indeed, extending to all forms of violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. In many ways they are much broader than the terms of reference for CARC, which focussed on the responses of religious and other institutions to historic child abuse.

The broad terms of reference mean that the Commission has the authority to investigate and expose in public hearings and in other ways abuses of all kinds in a wide variety of settings. Since the potential field for inquiry and report is so vast it perhaps may also mean that we shall have to make some difficult choices during the life of the Commission.

We also recognise that the challenges of reaching out to and engaging with people with disability are truly formidable. We have to find ways of overcoming not only the physical but the psychological and communication barriers to people being able to tell their stories and to ensure that they can do so in a totally safe environment. The experience of CARC suggests that people telling their own stories at hearings is a powerful way of fostering understanding among the wider community of the inherent dignity and worth, as well as the rights of people with disability.

Because we are only in the early stages of the Commission's life it is perhaps premature to give precise details as to how we will operate. However, there will be many opportunities for engagement: there will be more Workshops, and there will be public forums similar to those conducted in regional centres and remote locations by the Aged Care Royal Commission. Invitations will be extended to stakeholders and interested people to make submissions to the Commission.  We will publish Issues Papers identifying questions on which we would like assistance. We expect that there will be public hearings in each State and Territory and that these will be crucial in addressing the issues raised by the terms of reference.

We – and you – have been presented with very great challenges but also rare and exciting opportunities. Thank you again for helping us to make the most of those opportunities.