On Tuesday, the Prime Minister released draft terms of reference for a royal commission to inquire into violence and abuse and neglect of people with disability. The terms provide for a comprehensive inquiry into the causes, responses and protection frameworks as well as providing the commission with a broad scope of inquiry and recommendations.
The draft terms of reference base the commission’s inquiry within Australia’s human rights obligations to protect people with disability from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and explicitly instruct the commission to give effect to those obligations.
This should please the people with disability and their representative organisations who have been fighting long and hard for mechanisms to address the widespread violence and abuse experienced by people with disability.
The draft terms of reference direct the commission to examine the extent of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability in all settings and contexts. This allows the commission to consider a range of life domains including the disability service sector, mental health service systems, in education, prisons, and even in people’s own homes.
The Australian Senate conducted a national inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings in 2015, finding that violence and abuse against people with disability is an “epidemic”. The Senate Committee report made it clear that we don’t know the full extent of the problem.
Critically, the evidence we do have suggests that instances of violence and abuse against people with disability are routinely ignored or downplayed. Violence and abuse is often conceptualised as service incidents, or a workplace issue to be dealt with administratively – as opposed to violence or a criminal matter. Often normalised, the lack of response to many instances of violence and abuse suggests systemic failure across these systems.
A royal commission is well placed to examine the multiple forms and complex nature of violence and abuse of people with disability in Australia and current legislative, policy and service responses.
A critical role would be to examine the protections and responses that are afforded and to assess the adequacy of any avenues for recourse and mechanisms for reparations.
This will require a comprehensive analysis across systems.
As such, the broad powers of a royal commission provide a framework for a comprehensive investigation into the various forms of violence across systems and domains – powers that allow it to compel witnesses, and to identity and refer any matters of criminal activity.
The draft terms of reference ask for consideration of what governments, institutions and the community should do to achieve best practice to encourage reporting and effective responses to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. This includes addressing failures in, and impediments to, reporting, investigating and responding to such conduct and recommendations about any policy, legislative, administrative or structural reforms.
The important thing from here is that the federal budget reflects such an inquiry. Considering the parallels with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the budget needs to be able to ensure accessible and safe participation for victims to ensure their communication needs and trauma are respected.
The budget will also need to ensure the commissioners, and ultimately policy makers, have a strong evidence base to inform recommendations on what should be done to promote a more inclusive society which supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.
Research that examines not only the complex nature of violence and abuse, but fundamental shifts in how society responds to the concept of “disability” is also needed.
The budget and research are essential, so the commission can address what the Senate inquiry found to be an “epidemic”.
Rosemary Kayess is Interim Director and Director Engagement of the Disability Innovation Institute at UNSW.