Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (16:00): This Royal Commissions Amendment (Protection of Information) Bill 2021 amends the way in which we treat evidence given to the royal commission into disability. For the information of the House, I chair the coalition policy committee on Indigenous families and disability. Dealing with those in our community who are disabled forms a very large part of what we do. Of course, the rollout of the NDIS has occurred almost entirely under this government. It was certainly suggested, initially, by the previous government, and the initial legislation lay there, but in fact we’ve moved on with it very well. There was an article today—I think it was in today’s Australian—which portrays some of the dangers which lie within the budget for it. It seems to be stubbornly refusing to stay within any kinds of predictions it had at all. But I might say that 4½ million Australians, or thereabouts, are in receipt of payments from the NDIS, averaging more than $50,000 each—so people can actually work out what that means.
Anyway, as a government we are committed to those with disabilities. In April 2019 we announced the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. There is one thing a royal commission needs more than any other, and that’s honest contributions from people who are affected, and it needs people to come without any fear of retribution or fear of kickback, if you like. It’s very important that we protect those people. It has to be one of the most confrontational things to do. We have moved in this place previously to protect people in courts of law from having to face their accusers or abusers face-to-face. That’s to protect individuals so they can’t be targeted after court procedures. It’s exactly the same with this royal commission bill.
I have a friend who is fighting a quite high-profile and very public battle at the moment with a major national corporation. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting. There are some things you cannot hide from the public view and if you elect to take that road then you have to wear it, I suppose. But I can see the toll it takes on the individual, day after day, in having to front up to accusations which can’t necessarily be put to bed but which they need to keep bringing forward to establish the truth and principle behind the actions. The experience of those who give evidence at a royal commission with ‘the establishment’—I shall call it that for the purposes of this debate—is often not good. They don’t necessarily see people from the government, who are theoretically there to help them, as the answer and the solution. So it can take quite a lot of courage to stand up and tell your story, as it were.
In the past, we’ve had restrictions that have applied to the use of information provided to royal commissions. But the government has been asked by a number of people working in the industry and individuals to extend the provisions in the case of this royal commission, as we have done before, and to clarify those protections. The amendment also clarifies how the royal commission can use the confidential evidence which comes before it. Personal and sensitive information does not come to the royal commission entirely by private sessions; it comes by emails or letters or conversations. So we’re moving in this amendment to also ensure that that information enjoys the same protection as evidence given in person and in session. Similar clauses were drafted for the child abuse royal commission, and, essentially, the disability royal commission meets those same criteria.
Now, there are some parallels in the lives of high-profile people, be they in politics, sport, business or public administration, where allegations are made, many times without substance, and the individual is drawn into a vortex demanding that they defend themselves on a daily basis. This is the same situation that I was alluding to a little earlier in this speech. This legislation is not intended to address that situation, of course. But, once again, it reminds me of the stress that individuals can come under when having to relive one of the most unpleasant experiences in their lives.
What we need is for royal commission witnesses to come forward freely, and we need to minimise the stress of their contribution, which is what this legislation seeks to do. To itemise some of those things that we are aiming at, the amendment will, as I said, cover letters, emails, submissions and statements covering personal and third-party experience. It will apply to individual and systemic forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. If we are wondering what systemic exploitation is, it might be the situation where someone works in the education system and they are aware that the system or individuals within the system are using the protections of that system to abuse people or take advantage of them. So it covers whistleblowers, if you like. It allows them to speak to the royal commission and not have their position and place in the organisation exposed.
Unauthorised use or disclosure of information that is deemed to be kept private by the royal commission will be an offence incurring a prison term of up to 12 months, and that’s a pretty fair kind of penalty I would have thought. Amendments will ensure evidence provided by or on behalf of individuals cannot be used against them in a criminal case. This brings it into line with our courts system, where the defence of self-incrimination lies at the heart of the system. This is merely being extended to people who are willingly giving evidence at the royal commission. The records of the information will not be available for open access for up to 99 years. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, that that will give both you and I great comfort. We may see that evidence come out in public, but, speaking for myself at least, I suspect that I’ll be a bit past responding to it. It seems to be a very appropriate amount of time. Pretty much anyone who is anything more than an infant at moment can assume that it’s not likely to come out in their lifetime. If the royal commission wishes to use information confidentially, it can only do so when it has been de-identified.
It seems as though these amendments have the support of both sides of the parliament. I think that’s a very good thing. We should come together on such issues. Perhaps we should come together on more of them. But, in the case of this royal commission, it is doing good work. It is under way. It has already taken thousands of submissions, and we look forward to seeing what it has to say, even though, like other royal commissions, it may come with a rather nasty sting in the tail. In the identifying of substandard practices, they have already delivered an interim report to that effect. I commend the bill to the House.