Just days after being announced, the royal commission into disability has become mired in controversy with demands for two of the commissioners to resign.
After initially welcoming last week’s announcement of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, disability groups have issued a statement saying commissioners John Ryan and Barbarba Bennett have a potential conflict of interest and should stand down.
John Ryan, a former NSW MP who became a public servant, has been involved in the oversight of residential programs for people with disability in NSW, as well as the provision of grants to the disability sector under the federal Department of Social Services.
MS Bennett has also worked for the DSS, where she was responsible for implementing the cashless debit card trial.
A statement signed by almost sixty disability groups and individual advocates issued on Monday said people with disability recognise that Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett are respected public servants who were seeking to make a positive difference.
But the integrity of the commission demanded they stand aside.
“While we greeted the Prime Minister’s announcement of the formation of our Royal Commission on Friday with hope and relief, this was quickly followed by concern about the appointment of some of the Commissioners,” the statement says.
“Sadly, we believe two of those appointed have significant conflicts of interest that threaten the integrity of the Royal Commission process. In addition, we want all Commissioners to fully declare any and all potential, perceived or actual conflicts of interests, and be willing to step aside from hearings that involve their conflicts of interest.”
Royal Commission must be trusted
CEO of the Disability Advocacy Network of Australia, Mary Mallett, said both Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett have recent and extensive experience working for some of the institutions that would fall under the gaze of the commission.
“People with disability have to have confidence that this Royal Commission, that we have fought for over many years, can be trusted. We are worried that with Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett as Commissioners, many will not feel they can come forward and participate in this Royal Commission. This would be a tragedy,” she said.
Ross Joyce, CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, said disability organisations had put forward the names of many suitable candidates, including people with a disability.
Despite the concerns of the disability groups, the government is standing by its appointments, saying any questions about their validity is “without any foundation whatsoever”.
“As with any royal commission, commissioners will be expected to declare any real or apparent conflicts so that they can be effectively managed throughout the inquiry,” Mr Fletcher told Community Care Review.
Labor promises redress
Meanwhile, Labor has promised that if elected it would amend the terms of reference for the inquiry to consider redress.
“Labor is very disappointed that the terms of reference for the Royal Commission do not make any reference of the investigation of redress. This must be investigated as part of a process of justice and healing,” Labor leader Bill Shorten and opposition social services minister Linda Burney said in a joint statement last Friday.
A campaign spokesperson told Community Care Review once it the terms of reference were amended to include redress it would be up to the Royal Commssion decide whether there should be redress, who would contribute and how a scheme might function.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last Friday announced that six commissioners representing a broad specturm including Indigenous Australians and people with lived experience of disability would hear the three-year, Brisbane-based inquiry.
It will be chaired by Ronald Sackville and five other commissioners including Ms Bennett, Mr Ryan, NDIS board member Rhonda Galbally, Indigenous advocate Andrea Mason and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwen.
His announcement came after the government committed $527 million towards the royal commission in this month’s budget, including $100 million for advocacy and support for people with disability to participate, and ahead of a federal election in coming weeks.
Read more: PM announces disability royal commission.