“We know best”: Australian government again rejects Royal Commission into institutional abuse of people with disability

The past 18 months, in particular, have seen consistent calls by the disability sector and others for a Royal Commission into the institutional abuse of people with disability in Australia.

A Royal Commission was the primary recommendation of a Senate Inquiry Report, it was the subject of a failed motion by  Senator Rachel Siewert (which both major parties voted against) and has been called for in several petitions and campaigns from disability advocates and organisations and an open letter from over 160 academics nationwide.

A story on 4 Corners told of deaths and other alarming reports of abuse and neglect of disabled people in institutional care in Victoria and New South Wales and in the recent weeks, the horrors of Oakden in South Australia were exposed in an official report  into the government-run Oakden mental health facility.  Oakden is being closed down and South Australia’s ICAC has launched a maladministration probe into the State government’s management of the the facility. The Australian government has also launched a review of the accreditation processes for aged care facilities due to its concerns with its accreditation of Oakden.

Last year, Australian disability advocates took a human rights complaint to the United Nations, asking for an investigation into incidents in which children with disabilities were allegedly assaulted, locked in dark rooms and restrained in Australian schools.  They sought international intervention claiming that Australia has failed to act.  An ABC 7.30 Report in August 2016 exposed allegations of abuse against disabled students.  Countless inquiries nationally and at State and Territory level in the last few years have considered these matters, with limited outcomes.

Federal Labor has finally added its voice to calls for a Royal Commission, following “a series of meetings with people with disabilities”.

The disability sector and others calling for a Royal Commission believe that systemic abuse in institutional settings will only be exposed and addressed through an inquiry that is given a broad scope, widespread powers to compel evidence and call witnesses and that provides a safe space for people with disabilities to tell their stories.

But the Social Services Minister Christian Porter disagrees.  He says that “we take the view that engaging in real and immediate and very substantial reform — which is precisely what we’re doing — is a much better response than yet another inquiry.”  He was referring to the new NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission which won’t apply to people with disability outside the NDIS and will only hear complaints as to the future from when it is established.

But a Royal Commission is not just “another inquiry”. It is a real inquiry with real powers, appropriate protections and greater capacity to be accessible for people with disability, particularly in institutional settings.

In addition, establishing the NDIS Commission does not mean that a Royal Commission cannot be instituted – they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the findings and learnings of a Royal Commission will no doubt be of benefit to the progressive development and refinement of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and the services and entities under its jurisdiction.  In addition, as with the current national Royal Commission dealing with institutional child sexual abuse and the recent Victorian Royal Commission on domestic violence, the prominence afforded by a Royal Commission is more conducive to achieving cultural change in institutions and Australian society, which change is similarly at the core of addressing the devaluation of people with disability and their institutional abuse and neglect.

Further, as Dr David Roy from the School of Education, University of Newcastle, has pointed out in an open letter to the Prime Minister, the NDIS Commission “will have no impact on the treatment of children with disability in education. Indeed the NDIS has specific Terms of Reference that it cannot be used in relation to education in schools”.

If the disability sector itself believes that the shaping of the future should be assisted by the imposition of justice for, and learnings from, the past and present that only a Royal Commission can adequately deliver, then not listening and applying the “we (the Government) know best” smacks of ableist decision-making.

Listening is the start of respect, and respect for the rights of people with disability is no less than respect for oneself – disability is a normal part of the human condition – many Australians are born with disability, most of us love or know someone with a disability and every single one of us could one day become disabled and vulnerable to institutional abuse and neglect.

And that means that this is about all of us.

[Cover photo © Patrik Gothe]

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