Paralympic gold medallist Kurt Fearnley says the disability royal commission could get "messy" before it even begins, as disability advocates warn of boycotts and protests against the $527 million inquiry if two controversial commissioners continue in their jobs.
Disability groups, along with Labor and the Greens, are calling for the removal of commissioners John Ryan and Barbara Bennett due to to conflict-of-interest concerns. Despite growing community pressure, the Morrison government is standing by the appointments.
"This will get messy before it has even started," Mr Fearnley said. "I think it might be time to look out the window and see what the voices of people with disability are saying."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison set up the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability shortly before the election in response to allegations of horrific abuse. Six commissioners were appointed, including Mr Ryan, a former senior public servant with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services who worked on accommodation policy for people with disability. Ms Bennett was a deputy secretary in the federal Department of Social Services.
Disabled People's Organisations Australia - an alliance of four national disability organisations - says Mr Ryan and Ms Bennetts' previous jobs mean they were key decision makers in areas that will be examined by the royal commission.
Last week, the Senate passed a motion that argued the two commissioners had "significant and unmanageable conflicts of interests which are highly likely to jeopardise the integrity of the royal commission". It was sponsored by the Greens and Labor and backed by One Nation, Centre Alliance and Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Mr Fearnley, who is the 2019 NSW Australian of the Year, said the disability royal commission would require the "complete trust" of the disability community in order to be a success.
"Can you imagine how tough it will be on a person with a disability to work up the courage to go into a room and speak about the most vulnerable time in their lives?"
Some within the disability community, including former People with Disability Australia president Craig Wallace, have said they would not be able to give evidence if the current commissioners remain in their posts. Mr Wallace also says disabled people are considering protesting outside royal commission hearings.
Despite concerns about the royal commission, the Coalition says there will be no change to the original line-up. "The Morrison government stands by its appointments," Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told the Senate.
When asked if the Mr Ryan and Ms Bennett were considering their positions, a spokesperson for the royal commission said: "royal commission appointments are a matter for government".
"The commission is getting on with the task of establishing this important inquiry."
According to a statement on the royal commission website, the six commissioners met last month to "carefully and fully" discuss potential conflicts of interest. As a result, Mr Ryan will not participate in any dealings the royal commission has with NSW government departments as a disability service or accommodation provider, or with other relevant organisations he had working relationships with. Ms Bennett will not be involved in any hearings with officials from the Department of Social Services.
Mr Ryan is a former NSW Liberal state MP who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2018, particularly for his work in disability policy. Ms Bennett received the public service medal in 2017 for her work in social services. She has also supported a quadriplegic mother and a daughter who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 12.
The disability abuse royal commission is expected to run for three years, with a first, interim report due in October 2020. It is headed up by former federal court judge Ronald Sackville. So far, it has held preliminary workshops and is expected to open submissions soon.
The royal commission follows years of reports of horrific abuse. A 2015 Senate inquiry heard stories of "shocking" violence against people with disability, including a young man with severe quadriplegia who was found suffocated, a woman who was locked in a garage and forced to go to the toilet in a bucket and a woman with a low IQ who was raped and whose pregnancy was not discovered until 20 weeks later.
Sydney Morning Herald