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Disability groups call for conflicting commissioners to step down

8 April 2019 at 4:47 pm
Maggie Coggan
Disability groups are demanding two commissioners for the newly announced disability royal commission step down for the “good of people with disability”.

Maggie Coggan | 8 April 2019 at 4:47 pm


Disability groups call for conflicting commissioners to step down
8 April 2019 at 4:47 pm

Disability groups are demanding two commissioners for the newly announced disability royal commission step down for the “good of people with disability”.

In a joint statement, the Australian Federation of Disabilities Australia (AFDO), Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, and Disability Advocacy Network Australia called for John Ryan and Barbara Bennett to step down over conflicts of interest, that the groups say will severely hinder the effectiveness of the inquiry.   

Concerns were raised over Ryan’s senior role at the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, and Bennett’s role as deputy secretary of the families and communities branch of the Department of Social Services – two departments likely to come under significant scrutiny during the royal commission.

“We understand that Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett are respected public servants who sought to make a positive contribution to ending abuse and violence through this royal commission,” the statement said.

“However, we believe this work would be best served if they acknowledged their real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest and step aside. We call upon them to do this today in the best interests of people with disability, and the integrity of our royal commission.”

The joint statement has been signed by over 50 organisations that represent people with disability, across the entire disability spectrum.

It comes days after the three-year disability royal commission was officially launched on Friday by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.  

“The royal commission will inquire into all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. It will cover all settings in which these abuses occur,” Morrison said.

Matthew Bowden, Co-CEO People with Disability Australia (PWDA), said many of the organisation’s members were now not comfortable participating in the royal commission because of Bennett’s and Ryan’s roles as commissioners.

He told Pro Bono News it would have a serious impact on the effectiveness of the entire process.  

“They won’t approach the royal commission because of the abuse and the violence that they experienced within the institutions that [Bennett and Ryan] have had up until last week, very senior roles in,” Bowden said.

He said he was not suggesting that Bennett or Ryan were involved in perpetrating abuse against people with disability, but the fact they were involved in the organisations at senior levels was a barrier for people to speak out at the royal commission.  

Ross Joyce, AFDO CEO said there were many other, well-qualified people who would be better suited for the position of commissioner.

“Our organisations put forward dozens of names, including many eminently qualified and skilled people with disability… who did not have a conflict of interest, and who could act in the best interests of people with disability,” Joyce said.

He also said strong provisions should be taken to manage any other conflicts of interest before the royal commission began.

Bowden said he hoped the commissioners listened to their request and stood down as soon as possible.

“We really hope that they understand what the perception is, and where those concerns come from, and that they do step aside,” he said.  

“If they don’t we’ll be in a very difficult situation, and I don’t know what we’ll be able to say to our members.”  

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


  • Bridgette Pace says:

    I absolutely agree with this article. For far too long there has been an imbalance in any Government Inquiry that has taken place by engaging panel members from the very organisations that have a bias and conflict of interest in the issues being investigated. How can any real effective change occur when people with disabilities, their advocates or representatives do not form at least 50% of the panel? How many of the selected panel members can honestly say “…I have walked a mile in your shoes” and understand what it truly means to be disabled and victimised? Mr. Ryan and Ms. Bennett must be immediately removed and replaced by two other persons who have a first hand, grass roots levels of experience of the issues at hand. Too many bureaucrats, academics and other public servants serving on these panels will never produce any worthwhile outcome because their heads are stuck in a cookie cutter mentality when prevents them from grasping the depth and gravity of the issues facing disabled persons. They will never, if they value their careers, bite the hands that feed them. The Law Reform Commission into guardianship failed miserably in producing any worthwhile recommendations to reform this draconian and exploitative regime because of this imbalance. So too will the Royal Commission if it does not replace these two bureaucrats with independent disability advocates. People with disabilities and their families have suffered for far too long and having come this far we will NOT remain silent until a true representation of disabled persons forms part of this panel. These two bureaucrats must step down and do so immediately. Failure to do so will result in another Government whitewash of pretending to do something when they are doing nothing at all. WE DESERVE BETTER THAN THAT.

    • Mary Walsh says:

      My knowledge of both Mr. Ryan and Ms Bennett is that they have a sound understanding of the complexities of disability . There are many advocates who also have careers in disability – Does that mean they can contribute more than those – bureaucrats or not – who have given a lifetime of service to disability issues.

  • Vanessa says:

    Where is the conflict of interest? Mr Ryan worked as a senior public servant for the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (Ageing, Disability and Home Care) involved in devolution of large residential centres and replacing them with community housing. He was not involved in the oversight of residential care programs for people with disability in NSW.

    Ms Galbally was a board member of the National Disability Insurance Agency and is the Principal member of the Independent Advisory Council advising the federal government about the NDIS? What about the barrier for people speaking out at the royal commission about the neglect and exploitation we are seeing at the hands of the NDIS?

    • Bridgette Pace says:

      Anyone who was involved in creating and implementing the basket case known as NDIS should have no say in the Royal Commission. That project has been as highly successful as the “pink bats” fiasco created by Kevin Rudd. THE POINT of my comment earlier was that the panel members of the Royal Commission should NOT be public servant heavy. To get a balance you need to have people like Senator Steel-John, who KNOWS what it is like to be disabled and Mr. McEwin who has the moral fortitude to call the disability disaster for what it is and has no qualms in outing the government bodies who have failed and continue to fail society’s most vulnerable.

  • gudrudacrad says:

    Conflict of interest for Barbara Bennett and John Ryan? Neither has been involved in direct service provision to people with disability, and neither’s been responsible for quality frameworks or complaint mechanisms, so it’s drawing a very long bow, particularly when you stack it up against the conflict of interest for disability advocates like Galbally and McEwin. Will someone accused of wrongdoing feel that their evidence is weighed fairly by people who are avowed disability advocates? It’s critical that the Commissioners have a mix of relevant experience and skills. Bennett and Ryan bring lots of both from their time working in government; McEwin and Galbally from their work as advocates, and Sackville is essential for legal process. They’re a diverse bunch and a pretty good balance of lived, advocacy, bureaucratic and judicial experience.

    • Bridgette Pace says:

      If you care to re-read my first comment, the point was that there must be a balance AND THERE IS NO BALANCE. I would like to see at least two people on the panel who are disabled or who have cared for or lived with a disabled person. I have no problem with McEwin because he is the first person I have seen who is prepared to call the disability disaster for what it is and is not afraid to point fingers where there is wrongdoing within govt. departments – that also includes the draconian guardianship regime. Read the SMH Article of Feb 2, 2018 – I have never heard any aged care minister, disability commissioner, human rights commissioner or the like tell it like it is but McEwin did. Senator Jordon Steel-John has so why can’t he be included in the panel. For decades most department heads have done nothing other than spurt forth the usual pathetic platitudes and defend the indefensible. Theory and practice are poor bedfellows. If these organisations were doing such a good job there would be no need for a Royal Commission. The fact that we are, finally, says it all.

      Centrelink, Human Services, Social services, Child Protection Services, NDIS, Aged Care Complaints Commission (or whatever their correct titles) etc. are all an abysmal FAIL. Who created their policies, who implements them, who monitors then – public servants – who have no understanding of how to do a job properly. None of them are require the intellect of a rocket scientist and yet these organisations are all a big FAIL causing much hardship, heartache, physical harm and an enormous waste of government money – our taxes.

      If there is no guilt then there is nothing to be afraid of so your comment regarding the ” … ..accused of wrongdoing…” is, with respect, ridiculous. Disabled people are fighting for their basic human rights, how they are treated, their right to justice etc. They don’t care a fig about political finger pointing. They just want someone in their corner who will speak for them and outline the wrongs that disabled persons and their families have suffered for so many years. They need grass roots advocates who will give a strong and powerful voice and demand reforms which are legislated by statute to provide effective and powerful safeguards so that they can live their lives free from neglect, violence and exploitation – to date, they have none. How many abusers/perpetrators are punished by law, how many disabled persons are denied NDIS services because of the inane policy guidelines, how many group homes are monitored – very few or NONE. So, I say again, we need representatives from the disabled community to have a voice on the Royal Commission’s panel from which recommendations and new models can be created for the disability sector that actually addresses their needs – that is, people on the receiving end of these so called ”services’ – not those who are dishing them out – which is my whole point.


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