We are starting down a long road

by | Oct 5, 2023 | Ability News, Disability Sector

When the final report of the Royal Commission was released this week, it almost looked like the end of a journey. In fact, as Political Correspondent Melissa Coade reports exclusively, this is really just the beginning . . .

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Bill Shorten described the government’s release of the 12-volume royal commission report into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation  of people with disability, as an ‘historic moment’. 

His verdict was correct – but it’s what happens next that will determine how history will judge us.

“The royal commission has done a giant piece of work… this is a genuinely historic moment,” Shorten told the hovering press pack last Friday. His words were precise and carefully chosen to unite all Australians. 

“I want to acknowledge the stories of people with disability. We understand that this nation can and should do better.” 

“Nothing less than a fair go for all Australians is acceptable – and that’s what we’ll work for every day.” 

Nevertheless finding a way of turning such noble aspirations into reality will require far more than just a noble turn of phrase. 

The Commission didn’t just happen. It was only born after years of active lobbying and continued pressure from the disability community. Now the same people who so urgently called for an inquiry are concerned to ensure its recommendations aren’t buried or forgotten.

A group of people including people using wheelchairs are meeting outside of Parliament House in Australia

Calling for a Royal Commission: Disability activists with Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John at Parliament House in February 2019 (photo courtesy ABC/Matt Roberts) 

Perhaps this is why Shorten spent so much time emphasising the document reflected four and half years and effort to hear and understand the experiences of people with disability. 

He went to great trouble to repeat that the disability community had been intimately involved in creating this report and the NDIS and government services minister was keen to make sure everybody knew government took this final report seriously.

“As much as some of this report makes harrowing reading, and as much as there may be some in the disability community who say ‘We need more done, more quickly’ – I see this as a moment of national unity,” Shorten said.

“I do see this as a moment where we can paint the horizon for people with disability in Australia.”

And this is the key. The royal commission made 222 recommendations for change, changes which a special government taskforce is now working through. 

Public servants from the Department of Social Services, Education, the Attorney-General’s Department, Health and Aged Care, the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) have all been seconded to a special taskforce. 

A key feature of this group is that it has been tasked to work intimately with the disability community and stakeholders. It’s also been given a crisp deadline – it’s required to deliver a progress report to government by early 2024.

Joining Shorten at the same press conference in Adelaide, Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth thanked the more than 830 witnesses who participated in the 32 public hearings and nearly 10,000 people who shared their experiences in the royal commission.

“One in six Australians live with a disability – that’s 4.4 million people. 

“The royal commission has undertaken a massive task examining the matters affecting the lives and experiences of Australians with disability,” Rishworth said.

“The commission’s work has particularly focused on the abuse, exploitation of people living with disability. 

“This work was commissioned by all Australian governments – commonwealth, state and territory.”

Rishworth said the message of the report was clear: that Australia needed to do better to include and support people with disability, as well as protect their human rights.

A large auditorium showing people presenting and an Auslan intepreter to a small crowd

The Royal Commission provoked many opinions – unfortunately few people seem to have bothered to read the full Final Report (photo courtesy AAP)

But achieving the royal commission’s calls for change will require action from groups across society including governments, institutions, service providers and the community at large. 

“[The commissioners] have heard harrowing experiences of people with disability who have been let down by services, systems, institutions, governments and community,” Rishworth said.

“Over the past four years, the outpouring of experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation have shocked Australians.”

Upholding rights, safeguards and protections for people with disability

Living free from harm and with dignity, equality and respect was a special focus for the royal commission, whose terms of reference included Australia’s international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Gerrard Quinn, the United Nations Special Rapporteur gave evidence to the royal commission that the convention reframed how disability was perceived – centring it as a part of human diversity rather than excluding and alienating people who are disabled and different.

This shift required government decisions and policies to take personhood and choice seriously, Quinn said, and focus on how the autonomy (rights and capacity) of people with disability could be exercised choose how they wanted to lead their lives. 

It also meant eliminating systems and institutional responses that made people with disability so-called “captives of care”, and segregated from mainstream settings.

“The CRPD articulates rights, values and standards that should inform and guide our laws and policies to support the equal treatment of people with disability with others,” the royal commission said.

“This final report seeks to translate these human rights into practical and sustainable policies that promote the rights of people with disability to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

Inclusion across all aspects of society

The royal commission also underscored the need for more inclusive policies to give people with disability equal access to employment, education, health and housing. 

“Attitudinal change is critical in shifting towards a more inclusive society. Everyone in Australia needs to understand people with disability are not a problem to be fixed, managed or hidden away. People with disability are not less than people without disability, incapable or a burden,” the royal commission said.

“On the contrary, people with disability are strong, creative, talented and determined. They have fought long and hard to make Australia a more inclusive society where everyone can flourish. People with disability are a vital part of our diverse society. When that society is shaped to include them, they will thrive.”

A separate review of the NDIS is due to be handed to government by the end of October. 

Shorten said specific royal commission recommendations relevant to the NDIS would be considered with the findings of the review before any major reform decisions would be made. 

“This [report] will be used to powerfully inform pretty urgent action that we want to take to ensure the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission is actually keeping people safe,” he said, noting workforce numbers at the regulator had nearly tripled since Labor came into power last year.

If you have experienced or witnessed someone being hurt, treated badly or taken advantage of, you may want support.

If you would like to speak to a counsellor near you, visit the Department of Social Services website to find a service in your state or territory.

You can also contact the National Counselling and Referral Service on 1800 421 468 for emotional support, or ask to be connected to a counsellor near you. If you are deaf or hard of hearing and/or find it hard speaking with people who use a phone, call the National Relay Service (NRS) on 133 677.

If you are currently experiencing any form of violence or abuse, or you are concerned for your or someone else’s safety, call 000 immediately.