Disability royal commission faces boycott threat
16 September 2019 at 4:37 pm
The disability royal commission is officially underway, but advocates are threatening to boycott the inquiry unless two of the commissioners stand down over alleged conflicts of interests.
The first public sitting for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability started in Brisbane on Monday.
Disability groups say they hope the inquiry will be the beginning of a long process to achieve justice for people with disability who have experienced violence.
But some advocates remain concerned by two of the appointees to the commission – John Ryan and Barbara Bennett – because of their previous roles in departments likely to come under significant scrutiny during the inquiry.
Craig Wallace, convener of the Disability Royal Commission Action Group, told AM he would boycott the commission unless Ryan and Bennett stand down.
“While the royal commission has released a statement on the management of conflicts of interest and allowed for private sessions the reality is these conflicts are so profound they simply cannot be managed by established mechanisms,” Wallace said on Twitter.
“[Ryan’s] past roles, views and actions are in conflict with the goals [of the commission]. Bennett has wide ranging conflicts. Both will have to recuse from swathes of evidence gathering, analysis and reporting. Why are they there? What will they do?”
I want this #DisabilityRoyalCommission to be curious, capable and transparent. As abuse survivors how can we expect that outcome from ex bureaucrats who failed to recognise and act on these problems in the first place? #auspol pic.twitter.com/ARDoVyQYNe
— Craig Wallace (@CraigWtweets) September 16, 2019
Ryan held a senior role at the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, while Bennett was formerly deputy secretary of the families and communities branch of the Department of Social Services.
Advocates say while no one suggests Bennett or Ryan were involved in perpetrating abuse against people with disability, the fact they were senior figures within organisations under the spotlight is a barrier for people to speak out.
More than 1,500 people from over 100 organisations have signed a petition calling on Ryan and Bennett to step down to protect the integrity of the commission.
The Greens also passed a non-binding motion in July – with support from Labor, Centre Alliance, One Nation and Jacqui Lambie – calling for the government to remove the duo.
Labor’s shadow NDIS minister Bill Shorten tweeted on Monday that he shared “the grave concerns of disability communities about the two commissioners with potential conflicts”.
People with disability need their stories of abuse & neglect dragged into the light, so we can work to not repeat the mistakes of the past. But we share the grave concerns of disability communities about the two commissioners with potential conflicts. #disabilityroyalcommission
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) September 15, 2019
But the Morrison government has refused to budge on the appointments, arguing that conflict of interest allegations were “without truth or foundation”.
People with Disability Australia CEO Jeff Smith said advocates would be keeping a close eye on any conflicts of interest during the inquiry.
“We will be listening with interest [during the] opening session to hear how the disability royal commission will be managing the conflicts of interest of two of the commissioners, that many disability organisations and individuals have raised concerns about,” Smith said.
“This is something we will continue to keep an eye on, as the commission unfolds.”
On the eve of the first public sitting, commissioner Alastair McEwin AM paid tribute to the hard work of the disability community in establishing the commission.
“The royal commission came about through many years of advocacy by people with disability and their allies. We pay tribute to their efforts to shine a spotlight on this issue,” McEwin said.
“We say to them: the establishment of this royal commission is your achievement. Your human rights are and will be at the heart of everything we do at this royal commission.”