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A royal call for action; from commission to change

This past Friday, September 29th 2023, the final report for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability was released.

This commission was enacted in April 2019 as a response to community concern about the disability community surrounding abuse, neglect and violence. Whether this be recent concerns or historical issues.

The commission was assigned to;

-prevention of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation and better protection

- creating minimum standards for reporting, investigating and responding to this within the community and reaching quality standards

- helping promote a more inclusive society and promotion of human rights for those with disability.

So what is a royal commission?

In Australia a royal commission holds the highest authority for investigating matters of concern and significant public importance. Royal commissions are a public inquiry. A royal commission possesses extensive powers when it comes to gathering crucial information for its inquiry. These powers include the authority to call witnesses to testify and to request the submission of documents as evidence.

Royal commissions represent a distinct category of government investigations that operate outside the purview of the judiciary and administration. They are only established in rare and exceptional circumstances. In the Commonwealth of Australia, these commissions are created through the issuance of Letters Patent by the Governor-General under the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth). These commissions are limited to investigating matters falling within the jurisdiction and power of the Commonwealth.

Royal commissions are provided with specific terms of reference, which define the primary areas of investigation and the specified timeframe within which the inquiry must be concluded.

This specific commissions tones of reference where; to inquire into what governments, institutions and the community should do to prevent and protect people with disability from experiencing all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation across all settings and contexts.

A democracy needs public opinion, subject matter experts, leaders and lived in experience.This is why royal commissions are held in high regard and position.

Two statements by the commission that really wanted to highlight were the following;

“The current system of rights protection in Australia is failing to protect the rights of many people with disability and has not prevented violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability. A stronger and more comprehensive legal framework is needed “

“The burden of enforcing the law when rights are breached should shift away from individuals with disability. The new National Disability Commission (recommended in Volume 5, Governing for inclusion) should support implementation of, and compliance with, the DRA. “

The commission has many recommendations surrounding the human rights framework for the disability community. One major highlight is the recommendation of enacting a federal level disability rights act referred to throughout the report as a DRA. The commission noted the needs for Australia to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People 2006 into domestic law. This convention often referred to as the CRPD sets the international standard for the rights of people with disabilities, Australia is a signatory to this agreement however has not ratified it on a Federal scale.

The commission also emphasised the need for codesign and co creation with the disabled community surrounding this. This will be a momentous win for the community and fingers crossed the co-production element stays true so we can have meaningful, impactful and systematic change. A notable call within the disability activism and advocacy community in recent years has been “nothing about us without us”. This mantra emphasising the critical need for the involvement of the community surrounding issues that involve them.

The commission has also stated these recommendations:

  • Creating a new national disability commission, alongside an independent statutory authority with powers to address breaches of the new act and monitor it

  • Creating a new government portfolio for disability (currently, disability affairs sits within the Social Services and NDIS portfolios)

  • Creating a new national disability agreement between the federal, state and territory governments, to strengthen collaboration

  • Strengthening the current National legislation we have such as the Disability Discrimination Act from 1992

It is important to note that these recommendations, while they are great recommendations, will be hard to incorporate here in Australia due to our lack of human rights protections.

Human rights in Australia

Australia has no Federal level Human Rights Acts, Bills or frameworks besides the minimal protections within the constitution. The only states with human rights acts are Australian Capital Territory and Queensland .Only Victoria has a Charter of Rights. All states and territories have anti-discrimination and / or equal opportunities legislation. In legal studies in high school my naive self thought that it’d only take a couple years for a human rights act or bill at a federal level to be enacted as the Human Rights Commission had just released a report detailing all the violations on Christmas Island as well as several other publications detailing how badly Australia needs one.

Yet here we are still without a human rights act, perhaps this can be attributed to the 11 years of our country being run by the liberals (ugh). Hopefully as we see the tides changing surrounding social change and justice we will see the fight for an act to be created. There have been recent talks and roundtables discussion human rights in Australia, perhaps we just need to be louder surrounding this need.

For now as a young leftist woman with a disability in Australia I feel some hope towards these recommendations for at least opening up the conversation and this report for highlighting the human rights violations to our disabled community. I hope this helps start the conversation and keep it going until we see tangible reform that is empowering for the community and has a domino effect onto other communities in dire need also. This report will continue to be momentous for years to come, let's hope it leads to change, and not another set of royal commission recommendations our government ignores.


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