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Final Ceremonial Sitting

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CHAIR: Good morning, everyone. My name is Ronald Sackville. I am, at least for a period shortly about to expire, the Chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. I welcome everybody who is attending this ceremonial closing hearing of the Royal Commission which is being held in the Grand Ballroom of the Shangri La Hotel in Sydney. 

I also extend a warm welcome to all of those who are following the proceedings on the livestream. I'm joined in the hearing room today by my fellow Commissioners, Commissioner Barbara Bennett PSM, Commissioner Rhonda Galbally AC, Commissioner Alastair McEwin AM, Commissioner John Ryan AM. We are also joined by Ms Kate Eastman AM SC, Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission. 

We are honoured today to have the presence of the Honourable Amanda Rishworth MP, Minister for Social Services and the Honourable Kate Washington MP, the NSW Minister for Disability Inclusion. We are honoured also by the presence of many people and representatives of organisations who have contributed so much to our work. I hope I may be forgiven for not mentioning everyone within these categories by name, but I do wish to extend a special welcome to the disability representative organisations who are joining us today, both online and in the room. Many representatives have travelled long distances to be with us today. May I specifically mention representatives from national organisations who have registered their attendance today. 

People with Disability Australia, Women with Disabilities Australia, First Peoples Disability Network, National Ethnic Disability Alliance, Disability Advocacy Network Australia, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Down Syndrome Australia and Inclusion Australia. I recognise that there may be other representatives from national organisations present today who have not registered their attendance and I extend also a warm welcome to them. 

I now invite Uncle Allen Madden from New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council to give the welcome to country. 

UNCLE ALLEN MADDEN: Thank you. Once again, my name is Allen Madden, Gadigal Elder. Commissioners, ministers, distinguished guest, ladies and gentlemen. For my first song   nah! 


Born and bred in Redfern, the capital of Sydney. Aboriginal black Redfern, follow Manly. No, the Rabbitohs. It's always an honour or pleasure for me to welcome one and all to Country just to give you a little bit of an insight of where you are and who we are. As with all welcomes, firstly I would like to acknowledge our First Nations and Traditional Owners of the lands that you may work upon or come from and pay my respects. To all our Aboriginal Elders, all Elders, past and present, also pay my respects. To all our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sister, from whatever Aboriginal island or nation you may have come from, welcome to Gadigal. And to all our non indigenous brothers and sisters here today, a very warm and sincere welcome to you to Gadigal. No matter where you've come from, whether it be across the seas, across the state or across town, once again a very warm and sincere welcome to you to Gadigal. 

And as I have mentioned many times before, was, is, and always will be Aboriginal land. Only three things surer than that   coming, taxation and going. It's an honour and pleasure to be here today to welcome one and all to Gadigal. Gadigal is one of 29 clans of the Eora Nation. The Eora Nation is bounded by nature's own, the Hawkesbury River to the north, the Nepean to the west and Georges River to the south and in between those three mighty rivers there is the Eora Nation. And in that nation there are 29 clans. And the clan’s land we are on today is Gadigal. 

On behalf of members of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and of the Gadigal mob, once again, a very warm and sincere welcome to you to Gadigal. There's an old Aboriginal saying out there, and I think it's very appropriate for you mob here today. They say, where there's a will there's relatives. And as you travel across these traditional lands and waters, may the spirits of our ancestors guide, look over you and keep you safe. So, once again, on behalf of Land Council and of the Gadigal mob, welcome, welcome, welcome. Thank you. 


CHAIR: Thank you, Uncle Allen Madden. I realise that I have managed to omit Commissioner Andrea Mason when mentioning out my fellow Commissioners. So, a special recognition to Commissioner Mason. 


CHAIR: Thank you. I should say, in the light of the mention of the Rabbitohs, I feel I'm fully entitled to mention the Swans, which I just have. 

The Royal Commission has held 34 public hearings, including the ceremonial opening, which was held on 16 September 2019, four years ago almost to the day. Of course, the 34 include today's ceremonial closing hearing. 

Today's ceremonial hearing has three principal functions. First, it marks the end of both the Royal Commission's program of public hearings and of our community engagements. I know that some people have expressed a desire that the Royal Commission should continue in existence to encourage and perhaps supervise the implementation of our recommendations of which there will be many. But it is in the nature of a Royal Commission that once its final report has been presented, the Royal Commission's work and its life ends. 

As of 28 September 2023, the implementation of recommendations will become the responsibility of others and we, as Commissioners, to use the lawyers' Latin expression, are functus officio. In short we cease to be Commissioners.

Second, today provides an opportunity for Commissioners and Senior Counsel Assisting to acknowledge and reflect on the indispensable contributions made by so many people, especially people with disability and their representative organisations to our work over four years and five months. Commissioners will provide their reflections on the experiences and stories that have particularly resonated with them. Ms Eastman, who conducted most of our public hearings, will also make closing remarks. 

Third, this hearing allows us to revisit, if only briefly, just a few examples of the powerful evidence we heard at our 32 substantive hearings. We will replay a few short excerpts of evidence given by some of the witnesses at public hearings, almost all of whom are people with disability. We shall also enjoy a poetry reading by Mr Andy Jackson, a person with disability who was the well deserved recipient of the 2022 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Poetry. 

We shall not be hearing any fresh evidence today. Nor is this the occasion to reveal or explain the contents of the final report. We shall be presenting a multi volume final report to the Governor General on 28 September 2023. Copies of the final report will be made available more or less simultaneously to the governor of each Australian state, since we hold Commissions both from the Australian Government and from all Australian states. 

Tabling of the final report in the Australian Parliament is of course a matter for the Australian Government. At that point the report will be made public and will be available online. Today's formalities, I should say, will be followed by an informal reception which everybody attending here today is more than welcome to attend. 

Let me say something about the establishment of the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission has been a long time in the making. We have traced in our various publications events leading to the Royal Commission being established, including the key role played by disability advocates. The immediate impetuous for the Royal Commission was the 2015 report of Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, which recommended the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate violence against and abuse and neglect of people with disability. 

That committee said, and I quote: 

Only a Royal Commission with investigative powers funded and empowered to visit institutions could properly conduct an inquiry and give full weight to the seriousness of the issue. 

For over three years after that committee's report, disability advocates and others continued to call for a Royal Commission. Their advocacy yielded fruit on 18 February 2019, when the then prime minister moved in the House of Representatives to approve a resolution by the Senate which had been passed on the motion of Senator Jordan Steele John, a person with disability, of course. That motion called on the government to request the Governor General to issue Letters Patent, establishing the Royal Commission into violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. 

The Department of Social Services then undertook extensive public consultations after which the Australian Government settled the Terms of Reference. The Letters Patent incorporating the terms of reference were issued by the Governor General on 4 April 2019. This marked the beginning of our inquiry and as I've said, four years, five months and I will add 11 days ago. 

The nature of this Royal Commission. To many Australians it must seem as though we are living in an age of Royal Commissions. They seem to be everywhere. Since 2003 when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was set up, Royal Commissions have been established by successive Australian Governments. During the same decade, many other Royal Commissions or bodies with similar powers have been set up by states and territories. This is not a recent phenomenon. Royal Commissions are as Australian as bushrangers, meat pies and the Matildas. The very first was in 1819, 31 years after the foundation of the colony of New South Wales when John Thomas Bigg was issued with a Royal Commission to investigate all the laws, regulations and usages of the colony. This turned out, as intended, to be in modern parlance a hatchet job on Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Since then, hundreds of Royal Commissions in colonial and post-colonial Australia have conducted inquiries into and reported upon almost every conceivable subject. 

Considering this history, a question has occurred to me, prompted curiously enough by the traditional Jewish Passover service known as the Seder. The youngest person present at the service, unless in a bad mood or sulking or both, recites the Mah nishtanah: Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh. This asks and more or less answers the following question: why is this night different from all other nights? The question that now occurs to me, and has occurred for a long time, is why is this Royal Commission different from all other Royal Commissions? Let me give five answers. 

First, although some Royal Commissions in the past have touched on particular policy issues affecting people with disability, it is only this Royal Commission that has been required by its Terms of Reference to establish accessible and appropriate arrangements for people with disability, their families and carers to engage with the inquiry and to share information about their experiences. We have taken great care and devoted considerable material and professional resources to implementing a trauma informed approach and to ensuring that as many people with disability as possible have had the opportunity to recount their stories and express their views safely and comfortably. Ms Eastman will say a little more about the approach we have taken at public hearings. 

That approach has been supplemented by innovative strategies designed to encourage people with disability to engage with the Royal Commission, whether through submissions, telling their stories in private sessions with a Commissioner or participating in other public activities of the Royal Commission. The public activities included over 700 community engagements taking place in each state and territory. These engagements were often the first time people with disability and their families, including First Nations people with disabilities, learned of the Royal Commission's existence and how they could provide their personal stories to the Royal Commission. 

Second, this appears to be the first time the Terms of Reference of a Royal Commission established by the Australian Government have expressly referred to a specific human rights convention. The Terms of Reference for a few Royal Commissions such as the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, have acknowledged in general terms Australia's international obligations but they have not expressly identified a specific convention to be taken into account by the Royal Commission. By contrast, our Terms of Reference record that Australia has international obligations to take appropriate, legislative, administrative and other measures to promote the human rights of people with disability, including to protect people with disability from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. 

Given this express reference to the CRPD, as I will call it, we have said from the outset of our inquiry that it must be framed by human rights approach to the issues identified in the Terms of Reference. That approach has been evident in the content of our public hearings and in the many reports that we have published over the life of the Royal Commission. These include 15 Commissioners' reports on public hearings, each of which repays careful reading. 

As we have explained in our publications, the provisions of the CRPD impose obligations on Australia under international law but do not automatically form part of Australian domestic law. In other words, the rights recognised by the CRPD cannot be directly enforced in Australian courts or tribunals unless they are given the force of law by domestic legislation, Commonwealth or State. Translating the rights recognised by the CRPD into domestic law is not a simple matter of transcribing the provisions of the CRPD into an Act of the Australian Parliament. Bridging the gap between Australia's international obligations and domestic law raises many complex issues. However, anyone who has followed our hearings, and in particular Public hearing 18, entitled the Human Rights of People with Disability and Making the CRPD a Reality in Australian Law Policies and Practises will appreciate that we have turned our attention to extremely important question. It's a fair inference that it will be addressed in the final report. 

Third, it was stated in our interim report our Terms of Reference are extremely broad. They have required us, among other things, to inquire into what governments, institutions and the community should do to prevent and better protect people with disability from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in all settings and contexts. They also direct us to consider what should be done to promote a more inclusive society that supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. With a possible exception of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships which reported 46 year ago, no Royal Commission has had Terms of Reference wider than this. 

This explains why we have inquired into many different albeit related areas. Areas of importance to people with disability and why we have proposed measures designed to protect them from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in all those settings. The areas we have investigated include the provision of health services to people with disability, inclusive education, pathways to open employment, the operation of group homes and similar forms of supported accommodation, the responses of the Australian Government to the COVID 19 pandemic, the conduct and practices of particular disability service providers, regulatory and supervisory regimes for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the experiences of First Nations with disability in settings such as child protection systems and the availability of disability support services including the NDIS in regional and remote locations; domestic, family and sexual violence directed at women and girls with disability; the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people with disability; the experiences of people with disability from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The criminal justice system insofar as it deals with people with cognitive disability and including people with cognitive disability in detention. Substituted and supported decision making, particularly as current regimes affect people with intellectual disability. The consequences for people with disability of homelessness and insecure accommodation, and violence and abuse experienced by people with disability in public places. In Public hearing 31 we heard the voices of people with disability explaining their personal visions for an inclusive Australia. 

Fourth, this Commission was the first to conduct private sessions and also invite submissions from the community, including, of course, people with disability. The Royal Commissions Act 1902 Commonwealth was amended in 2013 to authorise the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to conduct private sessions and that Royal Commission did so. They conducted a large number. However, that Royal Commission did not invite or receive submissions from the community at large, although they did invite people unable to participate in private sessions to share their own experiences in written form. At our request, the Royal Commissions Act was further amended in 2019 to enable us to conduct private sessions. That is a confidential meeting between a person wishing to tell their story or someone else's story to a Commissioner. We ultimately conducted 1,785 private sessions over 60 per cent of which were with a person with disability, as distinct, for example, from a family member or carer. Summaries of many of the accounts given at private sessions will appear with the permission of participants in anonymized form in the final report. 

I express my deep gratitude to my fellow Commissioners sitting with me today who have conducted the vast bulk, almost all of these private sessions. The process was extremely demanding on all concerned, but it was also extremely important for participants, as so many made perfectly clear in the feedback we received. Commissioner Ryan will shortly say something a little more about his experiences in conducting private sessions. 

In addition to conducting private sessions, we received 7,944 submissions. Of these, more than half were from people with disability and another 29 per cent were from family members of people with disability. We also adopted a practice from early in the life of the Royal Commission of publishing Issues Papers on a variety of topics. We did this to encourage responses from governments, organisations, advocacy groups and individuals. We published 14 Issues Papers and received a total of 710 responses, many of which were very detailed. We published an overview of the responses to each issues paper.

We are immensely grateful to everyone who contributed to our work in these ways   people with disability, disability representative organisations, disability service providers, academics, other experts, the Australian state and territory governments, statutory agencies and many other interested people and organisations. Their submissions and responses to Issues Papers have been an extremely important resource for us and have influenced the contents of the final report. 

Fifth, I think we can say there have not been many Royal Commissions, if any, that have faced external challenges comparable to those we faced during the 4.5 years of our existence. The most significant, of course, was the emergence of COVID 19 and its associated lockdowns and other restrictions. The pandemic disrupted our hearing program in 2020 and thereafter for a considerable time forced us to conduct numerous hearings remotely rather than in person. Individual hearings had to adjust as people, witness, members of staff and even Commissioners fell ill with the virus. 

The pandemic was one of the two major reasons for seeking and ultimately being granted an extension of the original reporting date specified in the Terms of Reference from 29 April 2022 to 29 September 2023. The other reason was simply the size of the task we were given by the Terms of Reference. 

When that request was made we had expected the pandemic to ease off by the end of 2020  or early 2021. It did not. That we were able to continue our program of hearings is a great tribute to everyone involved. The staff responsible for organising the hearings, the Office of Solicitor Assisting, Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, counsellors and other staff supporting witnesses and, of course, witnesses themselves, who often had to give evidence remotely rather than in person as they would have preferred. It is not an easy thing for a person with disability to give evidence in a royal commission hearing, even one conducted in a trauma informed manner and with a person's safety and comfort as the prime considerations. It can be even more difficult if the person giving evidence cannot receive face to face support in advance of or during the hearing. We are immensely grateful to all witnesses, particularly people with disability who were prepared to give their evidence in less than optimal circumstances. 

Quite apart from the depredations of COVID 19, we seemed to develop something of a track record for experiencing unexpected quasi-Biblical interruptions to our work, including our programs for engaging with people with disability outside public hearings. We had to navigate around rodent infestations in rural and regional area, bushfires, floods, and even an earthquake in Melbourne in the course of a hearing  when Commissioner Galbally was observed on screen evacuating the shaking room at a pace that rivalled that of Kurt Fearnley at his best. The coup de gras was when we had to reschedule a planned hearing day because a public holiday was called at short notice to mark the death of the Sovereign. Not something that we had necessarily anticipated. I want to acknowledge the work of our corporate staff who continuously monitored and responded magnificently to these challenges. To adapt the words of the much lamented Ned Kelly, such is life for a Royal Commission. 

The final report. The culmination of our work is, of course, completion of the final report, its presentation to the Governor General and its subsequent tabling in the Australian Parliament and, as appropriate, State Parliaments. This has been a monumental undertaking, particularly given the time constraints we were obliged to meet. I know 4.5 years is a long time. Oh, I do know 4.5 years is a long time. But the amount of material that had to be considered is enormous. Commissioners' Reports, Counsel Assisting submissions for each hearing, submissions generally, responses to Issues Papers, research reports, material from private sessions and public engagements and so on. Moreover, the text of the final report had to be effectively completed by about mid July to allow for formatting, printing of hard copies and the preparation of user friendly versions such as Easy Read and Auslan. We have been able to discharge our responsibilities only because of the extraordinary dedication, skill and sheer hard work on the part of many staff members at all levels. They have been truly magnificent. 

A very recent book records that after a spate of Commonwealth Royal Commissions in the 1920s a historian at that time articulated the first golden rule for governments. That is, when in doubt or serious difficulty appoint a Royal Commission. He also said the second gold rule was when immediate difficulties are passed, pigeonhole the report. While this may seem to be the popular perception, we know that these rules are far from universally observed. There are many Royal Commissions appointed for reasons other than addressing an immediate difficulty and certainly the experiences of people with disability, of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation cannot be described as an immediate in the sense of short term difficulty. More importantly, many Royal Commissions and similar inquiries do bring about significant reforms and lasting improvements in societal practices and attitudes. Many examples can be given, of which one is the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 

Whether this happens in the case of our Royal Commission depends upon the responses of governments, of businesses and, equally important, the wider Australian community. The abuses exposed by the Royal Commission demand an urgent and comprehensive response from all Australian Governments. I cannot claim that the final report covers every conceivable issue within the scope of the terms of reference. That as a practical matter would have been impossible. But we have attempted to provide a blueprint across a range of areas that fulfil our mandate to propose   again and I quote from the Terms of Reference: 

What should be done to promote a more inclusive society that supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. 

Let me say something about the Royal Commission as a resource. Over the last 40 or 50 years, disability theory and practice has become a recognised discipline for study and research, as it should be. Australia now has a significant number of highly regarded institutes, centres and tertiary courses devoted to disability studies, such as disability inclusion. The Royal Commissioners has drawn upon research conducted by scholars and experts within these organisations. We conducted a very extensive research program of our own. The research was conducted both internally and externally through agencies such as those I have mentioned. We published 26 research reports in all, many of which address gaps in the data and information and provide information about violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability in many different settings. I said 26   I think I meant 28 research reports, 23 were either conducted by people with disability or incorporated significant contributions from people with disability. 

We also received evidence at public hearings from experts in a variety of fields relevant to our Terms of Reference. It would be invidious to identify by name those whose contributions were particularly important. However, I do want to say that some of that evidence and the documentation supporting it was extraordinarily impressive and persuasive. The country is fortunate to have world leaders in these fields whose work deserves continuing generous support. The sum total of a Royal Commission, particularly one that has investigated policy questions of great social significance, is not simply the contents of its final report, important as that document is. The Royal Commission is a repository of vast amounts of material. That is or should be of great significance to scholars and teachers concerned with disability theory and practice. In addition to the publications I have mentioned, the transcripts of hearings run to over 13,000 pages. The exhibits run to scores of thousands of pages. They include detailed statements produced by representatives of governments and statutory agencies, explaining their functions and responsibilities and how they discharge them and in a few cases how they don't. Many of these were prepared because the Royal Commission exercised its power to require bodies and individuals to provide information in writing. I suspect that the National Disability Insurance Agency and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission will be truly delighted that the Royal Commission has now finally ceased issuing notices to provide information. This enormous body of material offers fruitful opportunities for further analysis and research by researchers and the academic community and indeed by governments. 

Media. Let me say something very briefly about the media. We have made strenuous efforts through our media section who have done excellent work to interest all media in our work and in the experiences of people with disability. The ABC has been exemplary. It's the only outlet, as far as I'm aware, that has a Disability Affairs Reporter. Other outlets, such as The Guardian and AAP, have provided very worthwhile coverage of the Royal Commission. Many other mainstream outlets have not. The mainstream outlets that have largely ignored the work of the Royal Commission might like to ask themselves once this Commission is finished why they took that course. 

Let me make some acknowledgments. The Royal Commission has been a large scale exercise. Staff numbers at their peak exceeded 240 located primarily in three places, Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra, but we had a presence elsewhere as well. 

It is inevitable that a non permanent body such as a Royal Commission will experience a relatively high turnover of staff, especially if a requested extension of time is not dealt with promptly. In all, we have had in excess of 480 members of staff in various capacities over the life of the Royal Commission. It's not feasible to thank everybody who has enabled us to reach this point. I will mention a few people who have made outstanding contributions, but there are many others not necessarily occupying senior positions whose work has been truly outstanding. 

I first wish to express my profound gratitude to Mr Paul Cronan AM, the official Secretary of the Royal Commission. Only he and I know the full extent of the challenges he has confronted. He has displayed determination, tact, courage   only to be expected of an Air Force officer   and a great deal of commonsense. We are all indebted to him. 

It has been a pleasure to work with Mr Andras Markus, the Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission, and Ms Louise Amundsen, the Deputy Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission. Among their many responsibilities, they and the ever-shifting cohort of OSA staff worked extraordinarily hard and with great professionalism often under extreme pressure to assist Counsel Assisting, preparing for and efficiently conducting hearings. 

I particularly must acknowledge the leadership, skill and dedication of Ms Neva Frecheville, Assistant Secretary, Policy, Research and Data and Ms Mary Ann O'Loughlin AM, a senior advisor to the Royal Commission. Without them the final report could never have been completed. 

I am also especially grateful, as we all are, as all Commissioners are, to Ms Sally Crawshaw, who led the engagement branch of the Royal Commission responsible for the indispensable counselling and support offered to those engaging with us. Responsible also for organising private sessions, coding submissions and conducting our public engagements. 

Ms Emma Appleton, who led and coordinated our corporate branch which included our information technology site management and hearings and logistic branches. 

Detective Superintendent Nathan Barron, who led our investigations team which analysed so thoroughly a vast amount of material and provided extremely valuable information for hearings, most recently Public hearing 33, relating to examples of abuse in Queensland which received some publicity. 

Our Auslan interpreters led by Ms Nicole Clark, who is here today, who have done a sterling job, as I'm sure Commissioner McEwin will attest. 

I wish to pay tribute to Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Ms Kate Eastman AM SC. She conducted most of our 32 substantive hearings and was responsible for eliciting much of the material which has informed the final report. Ms Eastman's thoughtful and innovative approach to providing a safe, comfortable and trauma informed environment for all witnesses with disability should serve as a model for future inquiries. 

I wish also to acknowledge with gratitude the contributions of other senior counsel who conducted hearings or parts of hearings. Mr Patrick Griffin SC, who is here today. Dr Kerri Melifont KC, Mr Lincoln Crowley KC, Ms Elizabeth Bennett SC and Ms Georgina Wright SC. Both Dr Melifont and Mr Crowley have been appointed judges of the Supreme Court of Queensland. Indeed, the role of Counsel Assisting has proved to be a polished pathway towards judicial office. In addition, many junior counsel, too numerous to mention individually, made invaluable contributions to the Royal Commission. 

My colleague and friend, Professor Ron McCallum AO, who is here today, I want to pay tribute to Ron. As one of our senior advisors, Ron did wonderful work, including writing important research reports. Ron provided me with sage advice, support and encouragement for which I will always be grateful. 

I have had wonderful personal staff through the Royal Commission led for the last two and a half years by my senior associate, Ms Kasia Czarnota. Kasia is extraordinarily capable and has performed a bewildering variety of roles to the highest conceivable standard, including the most important role of calming the Chair down when required. I could not have managed without her. 

I wish to express my sincere thanks to all the Commissioners, my fellow Commissioners for their commitment to the work of the Royal Commission. I have mentioned their role in conducting private sessions, but they have participated in all facets of the Royal Commission's program, including of course preparations of the final report and they have provided guidance on some issues, I am particularly grateful to them. 

Finally, but most importantly, I thank the thousands of people with disability and their families who have told their stories to us, enriched our hearings and provided valuable insights that have informed our final report. 

It has been a privilege and very often deeply moving to hear the experiences that should never have occurred in a society that values diversity, fairness and the principles of equality. We are profoundly grateful to each and every one of the people who engaged with us. 

I now invite Mr Andy Jackson to give us a poetry reading. 


MR JACKSON: Thank you. It's a huge honour to be here, particularly so many disabled people who I really admire. I'm going to read two poems. This first one is called Mutual Obligation. And I wrote it thinking about how much hard work it is dealing with the social security system and how employment is presented as the only solution to our isolation and our financial vulnerability. And thinking, too, that employment itself can be disabling. 

‘Mutual obligation’

The institutions hollowed out, you're cornered by an idea of independence
    rent stress and diagnosis 
work, the only rope thrown into the hole
some of those employed do well, seem intact, while others are rushed to emergency 
    missing a limb or a mind
    left with the therapy of paperwork
your body employs you in the labour of bone pain and flesh hurt, the small steps
    through the pharmaceutical minefield
    the work of falling to earth
the tenure of trying to do no harm to yourself, the painstaking translations of
    the body's murmurs and sparks
    the work of being human
on call to climb precarious impairment tables, to prove just how incapable you are
    and yet how able and willing
    you do want to work don't you?
still this hacking through forests of symptoms and prescriptions, desperate
    to lie down in a sunlit clearing, to rest
    to be heard and to be held
in the mutual obligation of shared air, where the work consists of listening
    to each other's troubled breathing
    with no solution to offer but this

I decided   thank you. 


Being invited to read poetry at this session, I decided I wanted to write a new piece. I wrote this poem called Listen thinking of all the people who testified to the Commission and everyone who weren't able to testify. So, this is in honour of their courage and their insight.


Enough of the blunt, stretched out hours without touch or an ear
Enough with the intrusive hands of those workers aroused by power
Enough with the specialists who know chromosomes but not people
Enough with the walls of clinics which absorb cries of pain but do nothing about it
Enough of the stories of tragedy and compensation wrapped around 
    our bodies so tight it is hard to breathe
And enough with the applause for simply breathing
Enough with the slurs and insults, then telling us we're too sensitive
And enough with the closed doors adorned with diversity and inclusion statements
Enough of testimonies gathering dust while the media moves on
Enough, enough with these lists
We are not victims of our own bodies
        We are survivors of how you treat us 
We belong to an ancient lineage of resistance and prophecy
We have always been speaking, even in our speechlessness
We remind you of the earth we are all born from
        And to which we can only return
Here in this awkward, sacred stillness, open 
Your mouth, ears, hands  the air is full of seeds
This time, let your discomfort mean something
This cannot be the end of listening, but its beginning
So we might be able to rest, breathe, nourished
    On this broken, luminous path we make as we move forward
    Weary and determined  carried and carrying each other thank you. 


CHAIR: Thank you very much for that poetry reading. Can I say it's not often that a poet who has composed such a powerful poem concerning the defects of the social security system is able to read in the presence of the Minister for Social Services. 


CHAIR: She was listening very carefully. I now ask Ms Eastman to make her closing address. 

MS EASTMAN: As I always say, good morning Commissioners. Good morning everybody in the hearing room and a warm welcome to everybody today. 

Commissioners, thank you for the opportunity to make some remarks at this 34th and final hearing of the Royal Commission. It has been a great privilege to serve as Counsel Assisting the Commission and I speak on behalf of the 25 other Counsel Assisting appointed to assist the Royal Commission's work. Many are here this morning. 

The Counsel Assisting role in a royal commission is generally associated with public hearings. This Royal Commission has held 32 substantive public hearings, over 154 hearing days as well as the two ceremonial hearings. We have heard from 837 witnesses of which 209 were people with disability. Public hearings have been held in every state and territory in Australia. Some hearings were conducted virtually during the lockdowns and when the travel restrictions were at the height of the COVID 19 pandemic. The Royal Commission has published 15 hearing reports, the most recent report for Public hearing 33 being published on 5 September. 

At the Commission's first public hearing, Rebecca Treston KC said this. 

The Royal Commission provides an unprecedented opportunity on a national scale to shine a light on the abuse of people with disability and to help realise the rights of people with disability and promote a more inclusive society. 

Public hearings have been one way of shining the light on the experiences of people with disability. The public hearings have covered a wide range of topics and issues affecting the everyday lives of people with disability in areas such as education, health, employment, housing, the justice system and disability services. In each of these areas we have examined the operation of policies and laws on the lives of people with disability, including restricted practices and substitute decision making like guardianship. 

As far as possible our hearings have been developed and guided by people with disability. We have endeavoured to hear from a diverse range of people with disability, recognising that there are multiple identities and intersectional experiences. Commissioners, you have heard from people with disability who are children and young people   part of the LGBTQIA+ community, First Nations people and people from culturally linguistically and diverse communities. You have heard from refugees. You have heard from people experiencing homelessness and living in detention. 

Commissioners, you have also heard from family members, supporters, advocates, academics and a wide range of experts as well as those who provide services and supports to people with disability. In all our public hearings we have endeavoured to adopt a flexible approach and considered what adjustments need to be made. This has meant doing things differently from the formal and traditional ways hearings are conducted. We have worked with people with disability and their lawyers to present their evidence in different ways using art   some is in the room today   music, photographs, in different languages, including Auslan, and sometimes by pre recording the evidence. 

Some witnesses gave their evidence together. Some were accompanied by their assistance animals, and we aim to take a person centred approach and apply trauma informed principles. I express our appreciation to the lawyers for your story, and the many lawyers who appeared with and supported witnesses to prepare for public hearings and participate in the public hearings. 

Commissioners, during the hearings you have listened to people tell you about their experiences of violence and abuse in some cases occurring over very many years and continuing to affect their lives today. Our hearings have also responded to immediate and current issues, including two public hearings concerning the impact of COVID on people with disability and the rollout of the vaccines. During some public hearings we have focused on a particular event, but for other hearings it's provided an opportunity to take a life course approach, to understand how decisions, policies and influences on a person's life shapes their experiences. 

Bearing witness to the scars, the grief, the trauma of people with disability and their families who have experienced violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation has been a difficult but necessary part of the Royal Commission's work. These public hearings have also provided you, Commissioners, with the opportunity to examine the actions, policies and practices of those in power, or those who make decisions about people with disability. The Royal Commission's special powers to access documents and obtain information has provided an opportunity to shine a light on matters that might otherwise remain hidden or be secret. And we have not shied away from probing and questioning to understand how and why certain actions were taken by government officials, decision makers, service providers, police and employers. 

During the public hearings some government officials, decision makers and service providers have acknowledged failures and shortcomings. Others have apologised for the harm caused to a person or persons with disability. Many have acknowledged the need to do more and to reform the way they engage with and include people with disability. It has been necessary for the Royal Commission to make some adverse findings with respect to the permitting or causing of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. 

In addition to looking back, Commissioners, you have also heard from many witnesses about their suggestions and ideas for change. Our public hearing focusing on a vision for an inclusive Australia gave you and the Australian community an opportunity to hear from people with disability about a future where the rights of people with disability should be respected, reasonable adjustments are made as a matter of course, ablest attitudes are confronted and inclusion is the norm. 

Another important part of our work as Counsel Assisting was to ensure we applied a human rights approach to the way hearings were conducted and the analysis of the issues arising in the hearings. Commissioners, you will recall while Public hearing 18 was quite specifically focused on how the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was implemented in Australia. The CRPD and human rights was a feature of all public hearings. That will be well known to anyone who has read the over 5,000 pages of Counsel Assisting's submissions that followed each public hearing and you will have seen a human rights framework that underpins the way we described and analysed the evidence. 

Well, Australia does not presently have a national charter or bill of rights. The evidence presented through the 33 public hearings exposed why the human rights of people with disability are not fully implemented in Australia or protected by Australian law. In that regard we also examined Australia's Disability Strategy 2021 2031, and we also examined a range of policies and initiatives designed to improve the rights of people with disability. All of these strategies and policies require a commitment to making real and effective change. People with disability told the Royal Commission that words on a page are meaningless without action, support and implementing real change. They told the Royal Commission that they want to see strong, effective laws that recognise human rights and provide effective remedies when a person's rights are impaired. 

Commissioners, you heard many, many people with disability who spoke about the importance of recognising and protecting their human rights in everyday lives and their activities. Their calls for better protection of their human rights were loud and clear. When people with disability say, "nothing about us without us", they are right to ask Australia to listen and respond. 

Finally, the Counsel Assisting team worked very closely with the Office of the Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission, the solicitors, specialist investigators from the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Police. I express my appreciation to all of them and I particularly acknowledge the leadership and the work of the Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission, Andras Markus, and his deputies, loyal deputies, Marianne Peterswald, Joanna Blair and Louise Amundsen. 

I acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of everyone who participated in the public hearings, including the solicitors and counsel who prepared, represented, and appeared at the hearings for witnesses and parties. I particularly thank my colleagues appearing for government parties in almost all public hearings. We very much appreciated your cooperation and assistance. 

Well, I will end by thanking Andy Jackson for his beautiful words today and sharing his time and wisdom with us. I also thank you, all the people with disability, not only those who are here today, but everyone who has been prepared to share their stories and allow Australia to hear, see and understand a little bit more about their lives. 

Commissioners, you are now going to see some of the video reflections of some of the people who shared those experiences with us. And I thank the Commission. 


(Video played) 

MS McLEAN: But they had not effectively measured risk, so they felt there was a risk to him and to the public if he continued to access the community. But nobody talked about the risk to him of being locked down for the rest of his life. 

MS MITCHELL: We're begging for help and we shouldn't have to be. I am that mother. I am the mother that they talk about. I   to get Joshy seen, I had to become "that mother": the nagger, the yeller, the complainer, the swearer, the constant phone caller, emailer, photo taker and report maker, the fighter. I am that mother. I wasn't that mother, because I trusted the doctors and the system. If I didn't become this mother, Joshy would be dead. I wish I had become that mother sooner, because then he wouldn't be suffering like he is now. He would have been seen sooner. I am that mother. I had to become her so Joshy would get the care he needs and deserves and has a right to. 

MR CARTWRIGHT: I don't know the exact words but all I know is your life stops. It's just   you may as well be   you may as well have your identity stripped really. Like you can't do anything. Like I can't even go to the bank and, like. Ask to withdraw money because if it's over the limit, (a) there's no money there; (b), you get given a card that State Trustee transfers money on a day that is predetermined, and if it's a dollar or two out of your agreed spending range you have to get an invoice and it takes two weeks. You just   you can't do anything. It's   yeah. You just stop existing in an odd way because you can still live, you still have freedoms, but you don't have freedoms. 

MS LEE: And the salt in the wound is the system that turns their back on us. 

MS EASTMAN: It's easier to look away, isn't it? 

MS LEE: It is easier to look away. It's easier to look away and disbelieve that the   you know, we have this issue of carer pedestal. You know, carers are placed on this pedestal as being self sacrificing, loving, caring people, that, you know, take on us as these horrible burdens in the world to be looked after. And we're not. We're people. We're individuals. We have dreams. We have hopes. We have, you know, feelings. We're not burdens. We are not vulnerable. This person was vulnerable to abusing his position of power in that situation. 

MS COPPOLINO: This Royal Commission is an example of how people with disabilities is proof that by telling your story, positive change will happen. We are sharing our stories so our experiences are understood and the terrible things that have happened, have been done to us, to prevent it from helping again. We are sharing our stories so that society will think differently about disability and see a difference in bodies, mind, communication, health as just a normal part of being human. 

DR MELLIFONT: In the past, that bullying had involved calling him names, pushing him on the ground, as well as being isolated and left out? 


DR MELLIFONT: Because other children wouldn't pick him to their teams. And on one occasion you picked him up from school, you heard comments from kids like, "Is he really a 9 year old?" "He's a midget." "He's a baby." 

MS BAYLES: They're the most common words we hear, whether it's snickers behind our backs as they're walking or I'm picking him up, walking him to the car. You know, to me that's playground banter and it doesn't really affect me, but when it's a child, and when you understand the impact of trauma on a child's brain, this, on top of everything else he's been through, it chips away and it festers and it boils up and he has lots of little meltdowns when things get too much. 

DR MELLIFONT: What would you like   if you had to   if you were able to give a message to new kids who haven't learned about your disability and don't understand how much it can hurt you, when they say things about you, what would you like them to know now? What's the message you would like to give to them?

QUADEN: Just don't be rude to kids who have disabilities, and just be kind and be nice. 

CHAIR: I now invite Commissioner Galbally to give her reflections. 

COMMISSIONER GALBALLY: Thank you Uncle Allen Madden for your warm welcome to your country, and I want to begin by acknowledging the disability rights movement in Australia. I want to thank the advocates and disabled people's organisations who fought so hard for so long to ensure that this Disability Royal Commission was established. And as one of two Commissioners with disability, I also particularly want to thank those disabled people, family members, friends, workers and advocates who so bravely came forward to tell us your stories. I heard your pain, your rage, your hopelessness, deep sadness for lives lost. I was frequently told about the tragedy of lost opportunities to lead full lives free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. I heard and I learned. 

So as we come to the end of the Commission, its salutary to remember what the disability rights movement began fighting for in Australia back at the beginning. Fifty years ago, these pioneers fought to establish human rights for people with disabilities to be fully included in the community, and without giving away their ages I would like to thank Maurice Corcoran and Lorna Hallahan as senior advisors to the Royal Commission and people who were around at the beginning. 

Fifty years ago these groups successfully fought for the closing down of institutions. But as a Commissioner, I have learned that while these institutions became group homes, many replicated institutional cultures, including restrictive practices. Fifty years ago the groups fought to close down sheltered workshops. While the names of the workshops changed to Australian Disability Enterprises, I have learned that wages and conditions remain much the same. Fifty years ago they fought to integrate disabled children into mainstream schools and for special schools to fully support integration and become resource centres. Instead, I have learned that now many mainstream schools are rejecting children with disabilities and pushing them into a growing number of special schools. 

As a Commissioner, I have learned that keeping people with disabilities segregated with their own kind has proven to be a very difficult ship to turn around. I have been told that mainstream systems and settings are not inclusive and continue to reject children and adults with disabilities. But I have also been told that there is fear. Fear that disability is contaminating, infecting the lives of the non disabled community with sight, sounds, behaviours that might disturb and interfere with non disabled lives. For example, I have been told that there is fear that having disabled students in mainstream classrooms will be detrimental to the education of non disabled students and use up too much teacher attention and school resources. Yet, research presented to the Commission shows that this fear does not have any legitimate basis. 

I have heard that fear arises when non disabled people do not have a strong relationship with disabled people, and that this fear can turn into loathing a disability and seeing disabled people as "other".  I have learned that loathing from fear can then turn into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities, and that this is further reinforced by the practice of keeping disabled people out of sight and out of mind often claiming it's for their protection, thus enabling the fear, loathing and discrimination to continue. 

I have learned that this is a vicious and insidious cycle creating prejudice in our communities. We have been told that what is needed to stop the prejudice is attitudinal change. Yet the research presented to the Commission shows that attitudinal change campaigns with advertisements exhorting the community to include disabled people, that that's not enough because the prejudice is too strong. 

As a Commissioner, I have learned that attitudes change when people with every kind and severity of disability are visible, present and meaningfully participating with non disabled children and adults on a day to day basis in every setting in the community starting with the earliest years. And I have learned that everyone relating together, disabled and non disabled, as classmates, neighbours, co workers, friends and acquaintances, they become a growing group of informal and effective watchdogs calling out violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation because it is visible. 

So my hope as a Commissioner is that the voices of disabled people and their allies will go on to act as the catalyst. They are the necessary catalyst for the transformative actions that are needed for governments and the community to build a truly inclusive Australia. 

CHAIR: Thank you, Commissioner Galbally. 


CHAIR: We are now to have another video montage.

(Video plays)

MR QUINN: The key thing about the Convention is the reframing of disability, and I continually stress this reframing had been happening for the previous 20 or 30 years and is simply given crystal clear expression in the treaty. The reframing has everything to do with breaking away from the stranglehold of the medical model in the past, which focused or fixated on a person's impairment and built policies   largely exclusionary policies   based on the impairment. And if you flip that around and look primarily at a person's humanity and their right to belong and to connect and to self actualise as a human being and to give back to their community, then that makes a tremendous difference in how we think about law and public policy, and, indeed, social services. 

MS LEE: I'm viewed for the things that I can't do rather than my strengths. I was viewed for my deficits when I was living with a violent partner, not how I managed to actively live in a volatile environment. People should take a strengths based approach. I was not believed, not just because I had a physical disability, but more because of my mental health condition. I was completely and utterly dismissed. 

MR BURKE: I think people should have a better understanding with people with a disability or special needs. They should know that people with special needs need a little extra care, especially if they get anxiety and nervous, or act out. 

DR McINALLY: And I think it is that common thing, which I'm sure most people with a disability find that when you start interacting with people who have never interacted with anyone with a disability before, they become a lot more aware of the challenges that you face and the things that you need to help you get by and they say things like, "I never even thought about that" or "I never noticed all these stairs into the restaurant before I tried to come here with you." Those kinds of things. So, I think you are right, in a workplace, having visibility of people with a disability, and that really helps to create that change. 

MS SCHARNKE: Disability is not something that should need to be accommodated for. This sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. It should be accepted as part of the natural spectrum of human diversity. There should be no need whatsoever to go above and beyond to ensure children with disability have access to an education because there should not be a system, there should not be a world, there should not be a country, there should not be a department that perpetuates systematic inequities and inequalities and discrimination. There should be no need to have to go out of one's way. One should not have to go out of one's way. No matter how much effort one puts in to ensure a person with disability has their right to an education being met, or their right to anything at all being met. This should not be seen as great achievement. This should not be seen as going above and beyond. This is the bare minimum, and it is needed and it is required. 

DR GIBILISCO: I simply want to live my life as much as I can on my own terms. That is, I am happy and even eager to play the best hand with the cards I've been dealt. This is my first priority. If this seems like a cry, it is not a cry for sympathy, but instead for empathy. 

MR SKINNER: I would like to see growth in employment for people with disability and seeing them more in management roles, celebrate the ability, "Yes, we can", everyone has a gift, that disability is "yes, we can". Improving job protection for people with disability, for employment, and open up the growth in employment for that beyond the future. 

BAS: Although we have differences, we are the same in many more ways. For example, we all love someone, we all have dreams, we all need to be treated fairly. We all have things to like and do and places to go. I go to school and do my homework like everyone else that doesn't have cerebral palsy. The only difference is I use a bunch of devices to assist me. Otherwise, it's exactly the same. 

MS HAYDEN: I am so proud of being disabled and I am so proud of who I am as a person, and, yes, there are some things that absolutely suck about it, but most of those things are things that we can change as a society. Disability pride and pride in who you are is so important. And it is so important that young people grow up seeing themselves as disabled and not wishing that they could change, but simply existing and understanding that they are supposed to exist. 


CHAIR: I now invite Commissioner Bennett to give us her reflections on her time at the Royal Commission. 

COMMISSIONER BENNETT: Hi. I want to start by acknowledging my fellow Commissioners and to particularly thank Commissioners Galbally and McEwin. As Commissioners with disability, they were so generous in sharing their insights and lived experience. I learnt a lot from them. 

I also wish to particularly acknowledge and thank the people with disability who gave so much to this Royal Commission. They had the courage and the strength to share with us their experience, often shocking and deeply personal. They came with suggestions and recommendations of what needs to be changed and how to make those changes, with many saying, "It may be too late for me, but I want a better future for the next generation." These people gave practical meaning to "nothing about us without us". Their message was clear: The only path to change is to give due weight to the voices and perspectives of people with disability and their organisations. 

I want to specifically talk about what I heard about group homes throughout our hearings. We heard that people with disability living in group homes are at significant risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. We heard many group homes have failed to keep people with disability safe, they failed to empower people with disability to have choice and control over their lives and they lack opportunities for people to develop and participate in their communities. Group homes have failed to realise the rights of people with disability under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. 

To quote from a submission we received from a person with disability: 

a good life includes being able to make decisions about your own life that means where you live, who you live with and who can come into your house. 

These people said group homes are not homes in the sense that the general community would accept. 

In describing of incidents of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability in group homes, one witness said she believed that it occurs almost as part of day to day practices in these environments. That it was persuasive. 

In 2022, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission conducted an own motion inquiry into aspects of supported accommodation. It cited thousands of incidents of serious injury of abuse and neglect of people with disability. It reported incidents of unlawful sexual conduct and incidents of death. 

Before group homes came to be the dominant form of housing support for people with disability many lived in residential centres, some which housed hundreds of people. We have heard that regardless of the smaller scale of group homes, they are in fact still mini-institutions and fail on many accounts to deliver the quality of life that was expected in these small group dwellings. 

We heard one rationale for the group home model is economies of scale. That it's cheaper to provide support to five or six residents requiring only one or two staff members for every one. This can lead to standardisation of care designed to meet the preferences of staff rather than residents and can result in neglect of individual care needs in favour of efficiency. We were told some group homes develop punitive cultures towards residents. A witness described a punishment chart which recorded when her daughter had not behaved according to the rules. If her daughter didn't behave in the morning the staff on that shift would apply a consequence. If her daughter responded to this punishment this would cause another behaviour and another consequence and so on. It was cumulative and by the end of the day we were told she was defeated. 

We were told that it's important for people with disability to be able to access all aspects of the broader community. To be able to build trusting relationships with a variety of people, not to have relationships limited largely to support workers and co residents. We heard that access to the community at large reduces the risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. 

On a positive note, we heard that there are some emerging innovative models that can provide options for people with disability that better support their human right and dignity. For example, we heard from the 10 plus one housing model developed by the Summer Foundation. This model involves purchasing 10 apartments in a large development located near accessible transport and other community amenities and redesigning them for accessibility. Under this model people with disability live in their own homes and have their own planned supports. 

We heard about the Community Living Initiative in Cairns. This is Australia's first purpose built housing complex for First Nations people with disability. The intention of the initiative is to give   is to strengthen culturally safe supports and services to enable people to move back home to country or to other homes of choice. We were told that at its heart the intent is to provide a place of identity, belonging and healing led by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. 

I would like to conclude with an account from someone who attended a private session. She told about having lived in a group home since she was 18 and that residents had to get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time. All the doors were locked, residents could not go out when they want to. They could not choose what they wanted to eat or when they had their meals. And if they didn't do what they were told they were locked up. She said it was like a prison. I believe we can do so much better than this. Thank you. 


CHAIR: Thank you, Commissioner Bennett. I will now invite Commissioner Ryan to give us his reflections of his time as a Commissioner. 

COMMISSIONER RYAN: Thank you, friends. This morning I would like to express the supreme gratitude of the Royal Commission, to the 1,785 people who came forward to the Royal Commission to participate in private sessions. Participating in private sessions was very much a highlight of our work with the Royal Commission and certainly it was for me. While the information that you shared with us was sometimes confronting, meeting so many of you face to face and hearing your stories directly was thoroughly uplifting. We found ourselves speaking to people initially in our offices and then, courtesy of the arrangements we had to make during the pandemic, we entered your homes, hospital wards, workplaces, group homes, jails and even overseas via video and teleconference. 

We are so grateful to our staff who ensured that every private session participant was meticulously supported before and after each private session. Most of my private sessions went for an hour or longer. At the Royal Commission we strove to create a safe space for you to come and tell your stories in an environment where you were comfortable. Nearly two out of every three of our private sessions participants were people with disabilities and more than half of those were people who were sharing their own experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. 

Your contribution to the work of the Royal Commission was immeasurable. The extent and consistency of your account demonstrates beyond any doubt that people with disability are enduring unacceptable violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation and that this is occurring to people of all ages and circumstances. The information you gave us not only confirms that this mistreatment occurs, but your individual stories explain how this occurs and also informed us about its human cost and the debilitating impact that it had on your lives. 

We are acutely aware that your contribution to the Royal Commission came at the cost of reliving some of the most difficult moments of your lives. We are so grateful for your generosity and courage in coming forward and we hope that you feel great satisfaction that the sharing of your pain will underwrite the opportunity for others to experience a more inclusive Australia in the future. Thankfully many of you expressed that very same sentiment to us directly. One person said to our staff after their private session: 

Despite feeling drained and overwhelmed, I felt safe and valued and I was very grateful for the chance to share my story with the Commission. 

Another summed it up by saying: 

Thank you sincerely for the opportunity to be heard. I pray change may come from this and that my efforts to share the experiences not only of myself but thousands of vulnerable, missing voiceless Australians can be valued and used to make necessary change. I trust that my effort was worth it. Thank you. 

The same can be said for the many thousands of people with disability who shared their stories with us in the form of submissions. The most valuable impact of your participation to the Royal Commission is that you have bolstered the recommendations that will eventually be made in our final report with an invincible wall of unambiguous credibility. Governments and organisations who receive our recommendations will understand that this is not our voice calling for change, but yours. 

Friends, I am not ashamed to say that you also taught me. I am no different to the rest of other Australian members of the community. I need to change, and we all need to do better in understanding that people with disability are citizens with human rights who join with us in partaking in the precious experience of living and who want to flourish and enjoy life every bit as much as anyone else. As one of you told us in a private session: 

I feel like they treat me like a baby. I'm talked at and not with. 

Another said poignantly: 

People with a disability aren't less than anyone else. You find what they are good at, and they excel. You put a fish in a tree, it won't do much. You put a fish in water   

But if I may borrow the words of the Australian para athlete and champion Dylan Alcott: 

Our purpose is not so much to call each other out but to call each other in. Including people with a disability is not so much a burden as it can be a joy. 

I thank all the private session participants who taught me that. You have made an indelible impression on me that will last for the rest of my life. I'm very hopeful that it will have a similar impact on our whole nation as well. All of us at the Royal Commission thank our private session participants from the bottom of our hearts for playing such an important part in making Australia a more inclusive country. 

And finally, I will borrow the words of our poet Andy Jackson. This cannot be the end of listening; it has to be the beginning. Thank you. 


CHAIR: Thank you, Commissioner Ryan. We are now to have another short video montage.

(Video plays)

MS COPPOLINO: Colonisation causes disability and makes disability worse, especially for First Nations communities. We always used to have intersectional approach to make sure we are seen as whole people with multiple identities that need to be recognised and understood. Intersectionality means that when we think about disability inclusion, that no one is left behind, and everyone is at the table, included, participating fully in our community. A human rights approach to disability is essential for an inclusive Australia so that we can all enjoy our human rights on equal basis. My vision of an inclusive Australia is when disability, the differences of our bodies and minds is understood, embraced and accommodated and celebrated as being completely normal and part of the human condition. That's my answer. 

MS SIMBI: So that's the cultural misunderstanding. And because of those misunderstandings, there is an abuse that comes with that stigma, that comes with   with that. And people with disability are considered as nothing. Nobody pay attention to them. Like, when you have a disability   when I was young, I was told that nothing good will ever come out of me. 

TREVOR: I'm a person of colour who has grown up in a white dominated society. I'm a person with a disability growing up in an ablest world. I'm a same sex attracted person who lives in a heteronormative world. I'm also from a lower socioeconomic background. For me, it has been really important to find my people who accept all parts of my multi dimensional identity. 

MS BARRELL: Some patrons take it upon themselves to when my support workers will go to the bathroom or get a refreshment, they see that as their cue to come up to me and start abusing me and they say horrible things like I make them fucking sick because they are trying to be out here enjoying themselves and I'm ruining their fucking night and how fucking dare I come out here tonight and I'm taking up all this space and I shouldn't have this space. Why doesn't he get that space. And they fully go off their head and they are drunk, and they stand over me and intimidate me. I love going to the Koori Knockouts or the All Star games because nothing ever happens there when it's Aboriginal people. Yes, I'm so safe and there's no derogatory comments. Everyone is super polite and they don't bump into you and they respect you. And I'm an equal. 

MS TARRAGO: And that's because, in community, Aboriginal people don't see disability the same way that the western community does. 

MR BEDFORD: Yeah, that's exactly right. We just   we see the strengths that they have. We don't see the   they just, you know, I don't know how to explain it because we just see another kid, you know. And then nothing different to us. That kid might be a little bit different, but then we just work around the kid's specialist tries. You know, like, see they specialise in something. We just let them, you know. Encourage them along to keep going with it and   or support them in a way, the stuff that they like and, yeah, make them feel like a normal child, you know. 

MS TARRAGO: Because you just see the person? 

MR BEDFORD: Yeah, we don't see the disability. We just see a person   another person. 

MS DIXON: I feel that, in an ideal world, if we all held a human rights and social model perspective of disability, along with an understanding that disability is a mismatch between person and environment, then those stigmas and the pressures that are felt by people with disability would decrease. Individual language preferences could prevail, and discussions around those meaningful and practical supports would be much more comfortable for everyone. 

MR CUMMINS: Human rights, to me, I spent time in an institution when I was 19 years old, I never had any rights. When you live in institutions, that   you got rules you have to follow. When I moved out, I learned the hard way. I pay me own bills, I've got people for meal breaks, I don't tell what time you have to be in, what time you have to have a shower, what time you have to be home and all that. Part of equal rights is part of that, do what you want to do out of the community. We got the same rights like anybody else that hasn't got a disability at all. 

MS EASTMAN: Rachel, what do human rights mean for you? 

MS HIGH: Well, the right to be independent, like in your own home and in your own communities, I see that as a human right. The right to explore, you know, the right to be who you are, not what you are. 


CHAIR: I'm determined now not to omit Commissioner Mason. So, I now invite Commissioner Mason to give us her reflections on her time at the Royal Commission. 

COMMISSIONER MASON: Before I begin my reflections, may I also add my thanks to Uncle Allen Madden for his welcome to Gadigal. 

During this Royal Commission I have been reminded time and time again of what I acknowledge as three key pillars of modern Australian society. The first pillar is human rights. It is uncontroversial to say today that every Australian belongs to the human family. We know this better today than those living in the 19th century, when arguments by the 1840s increasingly prosecuted the case that humanity could be divided into a small number of races and that race and culture were closely connected. These ideas travelled to Australia. In the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, these ideas were put to the margins of societies as the world turned to celebrate the universal human rights of one family. 

In 2008 Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. Its purpose is to promote the human rights of people with disability. In 2009 Australia ratified the optional protocol and since then the work has been about implementing the Convention into Australian law. As Australians, we are very proud of our multicultural story. It is often said that Australia is the most successful multicultural country on Earth. We have more than 300 different ancestries, including the diversity of First Nations peoples and cultures. The rich diversity of our citizenship and its positive offering to Australia is the second pillar. 

The third pillar is present in the first two pillars. But, it has taken many decades to emerge to find its voice, language, relevance and purpose. Today its place is still being consolidated in Australian law and policies. However, its importance is such that it has been a major focus of this Royal Commission. 

The third pillar is intersectional rights. It is this pillar that I want to focus on in my reflections. People with disability are diverse. They are not a homogenous group, and they are present in all three pillars. Their experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation are also different and diverse. Beginning early in life, some groups of people with disability face a heightened vulnerability to experiencing maltreatment. These experiences early in life may result in cumulative harm across their lives. 

Our Terms of Reference required us to have regard to the specific experiences of violence against and abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability, multi layered and influenced by experiences associated with their age, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, intersex status, ethnic origin or race, including the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability. Here is an example of intersectional experiences from someone who wrote a submission. 

Many people thought I was a bit slow, so I became a target of discrimination. My parents had poor English skills and limited knowledge of Australian culture. These deficiencies were a significant disadvantage to my upbringing and education. I was often told by people at school that I was stupid and would be on the dole for the rest of my life. I was often called a dumb wog, retard, brainless twit and other derogatory insults. Some teachers would hear and see what was going on and ignored it. As a result, I believed that my academic abilities were restricted, and I didn't put in as much effort as I could have in several subjects. 

In a private session a participant told us: 

My feelings were coming to Australia, this is a first world country with laws in place. I expected more justice than what I have had. One of the rights we have as human beings is to be recognised as a human being. When you are treated less than that, it is the deepest of the deepest hurt. 

A quote from another private session, a participant told us: 

It is hard enough dealing with abuse, domestic violence and family violence as a normal person. It is extremely difficult to manage with a disability. 

This Royal Commission has underlined for me that a truly inclusive society is realised when human rights, a diversity of our citizenship and intersectional rights are integrated into the everyday work of law making, policy, and service delivery design, implementation and continuous improvement. If the third pillar is absent or applied inconsistently, there is a high risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation being experienced by people with disability. As we know, there is no such thing as a two legged table. 

This clarifies why people with disability say, "nothing about us without us". It clarifies why people with disability must be in the rooms and at the tables when decisions are being made about them. It ensures that their human rights, their diverse lived experiences and their intersectional experiences are acknowledged and captured. Thank you. 


CHAIR: Thank you Commissioner Mason. I now invite Commissioner McEwin to give us his reflections. 

COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you, Chair. Education was a very big topic at this Royal Commission. This is not surprising as many people told us that their human right to education is foundational to all other human rights. Disabled people, their families, advocates, academics and others told us that education is the start and as a precursor to all people being included in all aspects of mainstream society, schools, workplaces homes and community. 

Parents of disabled children told this Royal Commission that they have the same aspirations for their children just like other parents. One parent told us: 

School is about maximising their potential. Every child has a right to that. 

A reoccurring theme, particularly in the many private sessions I did, was the failure of the mainstream education system to include disabled children in their schools. I never had a parent tell me that they wanted their child to go to a special school. They told me repeatedly of their attempts to work with their local mainstream school to include their disabled child in the classroom and the school community. I lost count of the many practical and easy solutions these families tried to implement with their local school and the structural and attitudinal barriers they continued to face. 

Many students and families gave up and felt they had no other choice than to go to a special school. A young advocate told us in a public hearing that mainstream schools are: 

So inaccessible and so rort with bullying that it doesn't feel like a choice anymore. 

We saw and read about gatekeeping where teachers and principals told disabled children and their families that their local school couldn't enrol them and that they would be better off going to a special school. One disabled child and his family were told by a school that he would slow down the class. We were told of the many different ways in which disabled students are pushed out of the mainstream classroom into segregated settings, and yet this is often referred to as "choosing" those settings. 

We were also told about the low or no expectations of disabled children to learn and develop. There were many accounts of disabled children experiencing severe neglect in their education and social development. In addition to the core right to education, we saw and read about the rights for disabled children to have access to their linguistic and cultural identities. The deaf community told this Royal Commission of the importance of deaf children receiving their education in sign language. They told us of the negative and devastating life long impacts of language deprivation. We were also told by First Nations people with a disability of the importance of having their cultural rights recognised. They told us this can be achieved by having First Nations disabled and non disabled children learning together in a culturally appropriate way. 

Thousands of people, whether in public hearings, submissions, or private sessions were very clear on what needs to change; that mainstream schools need to be inclusive of all children. Inclusive education gives all children the opportunity to develop understanding, knowledge and empathy of each other. This leads to a great acceptance of disability as part of the diversity of society. We saw and read that for inclusive education to work no child should be turned away from a mainstream school and that solutions for inclusion should be found. 

Many solutions for inclusive education were provided to this Royal Commission, solutions which have already been implemented in some schools in Australia with success. Just three of these simple yet powerful solutions are: A fully inclusive school in Townsville where no child was turned away on the basis of disability, regardless of support needs; an autism coach in every primary school in South Australia to support teachers to ensure their practices are inclusive; and the Queensland Government's education policy which references the principles of inclusive education articulated by Article 24 on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and General Comment No 4. 

The reform agenda for governments to implement inclusive education needs to be true to the non segregation of spirit and intent of the Convention. That is, mainstream education settings are to be inclusive of all children and the default placement for them. The reform agenda for mainstream schools to be inclusive should at its core be about learning and development for all children. The agenda is therefore not solely about disability, it is about universal design and access for all. 

In bringing this to an end I say two things. First, I thank each person who provided their experiences and information to this Royal Commission. Your contributions have been invaluable to our work. Second, and finally, I have a vision of Australia having a fully inclusive education system where there is only one education setting with no dual and segregated settings of mainstream and special schools. 

Just one final thing if I may. I saw and felt the pain of thousands of missed opportunities for disabled children who were and continue to be excluded from learning with their non disabled peers, and I saw and felt the pain of these children and their families who have tried so hard to be included in the mainstream system only to be dismissed and excluded by that system that did not welcome them. My hope as a disabled person is that in the near future every mainstream school welcomes all children, disabled and non disabled. It is my hope that every mainstream school provides learning and development for each individual child. Until this happens we will never achieve a fully inclusive society that embraces disability as part of the diversity of our community. 


CHAIR: Thank you, Commissioner McEwin. In closing, I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to today's ceremonial hearing, especially Uncle Allen Madden and each of the people who featured in the video presentation that we have seen. I thank them both individually and as representatives of every person with disability and every family member who was generous and determined enough to tell their stories, to share their stories with the Royal Commission. I thank everyone who has joined us in person at this hearing or has followed us on the livestream following these proceedings and all the other proceedings of the Royal Commission. We are very grateful for your interest and support, and I thank also Andy Jackson for his very powerful presentation of poetry. 

I wish to express gratitude to the hardy survivors of the Royal Commission staff who have remained with us until the very last hearing. As I have said many times, organising each of our hearings has been a formidable undertaking. The present hearing is no exception and the dedicated and enthusiastic staff of the Royal Commission, nearly all of whom are here today, as always have done a wonderful job. They will be richly rewarded by being offered a cup of tea after the hearing concludes. As the Australian newspaper would say, this is a taxpayer funded cup of tea. 

The time has come to wind up this Royal Commission. Our premises are or will be decommissioned. The last password will be deleted. The last piece of paper will be filed or shredded as the case may be. Each and every paper clip numbered and returned to its rightful place and then the lights will be switched off. The final report will remain and will provide a blueprint for long overdue reforms. To adopt parliamentary language, we commend the report to people with disability and to the entire Australian community. This concludes the Royal Commission's program of public hearings. Thank you.