SECOND READING DEBATE - Ageing and Disability Commissioner Bill 2019

As the shadow Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, I support the Ageing and Disability Commissioner Bill 2019.

I thank the shadow Minister for Ageing and shadow Minister for Disability Services, the member for Canterbury, for her sensible and comprehensive work on the bill and note from the outset that I support the important amendments she is proposing to ensure we stop the abuse, neglect, exploitation and other forms of violence against older people and those with disabilities in our State. I also congratulate the Minister on the bill because it is very overdue.

During interactions with government many people with disabilities and older people are failed by the system. People have come to my electorate office in Maitland to tell me stories about their interactions with the health and mental health, education, housing and Family and Community Services [FACS] systems, which have failed them terribly.

In recent years in this State people have been admitted to hospital who have had difficulty accessing an enteral feeding machine. People have been at risk of losing their social housing or have disengaged from school. There are many other terrible cases.

We all need to do better when it comes to providing safe and inclusive spaces for people with disabilities in our communities, and ensuring that they can access the full suite of services from our Government. This is not a new idea. When I worked in the social justice area in the Department of Immigration in the early 1990s there was the Access and Equity Unit. Back then people with disabilities were recognised as experiencing severe barriers to accessing government services.

Yet in 2019, nearly 40 years later, we are still sending people to hospitals, schools and houses that are not appropriate for their needs. That is why Labor has worked to ensure the continuation of funding for disability advocacy services that is so essential.

But our obligation does not end there. By the very nature of their disability or the comorbidities of ageing, the people who are to be protected by this legislation are the most vulnerable in our community. They are often the least able to report, end or escape abuse, neglect or exploitation.

I have spoken previously about my work reviewing Australia's child migrant schemes and the horrific abuse that took decades to uncover, with completely inadequate oversight by governments of children who were in their guardianship at the time. History has proved that governments have been remiss in their obligations to those whom they profess to take under their guardianship. It can take years, decades and, shamefully, sometimes even generations before these wrongs are even acknowledged, much less addressed or compensated by governments.

The pace of change in caring for people with disabilities in New South Wales has been rapid, and the unseemly haste displayed by the Government in acting to remove its responsibilities for people with disabilities has left them more vulnerable than ever. This, coupled with the complete underfunding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme by the Federal Government, has led to widening gaps that have hurt vulnerable people in our community.

These continue not to be addressed properly. In October 2015 I raised my concerns in this place about those with disabilities. Today I add my concerns for our older Australians—those who experience the comorbidities of ageing that make them more vulnerable to evil people who prey upon them.

It is a foolish government that cannot recognise the increased dependence of those who are differently abled, because of age or disability, on their perpetrators. It is a naive government that fails to understand that, in their sometimes reduced capacity, people may not have the ability to report their abuse or even, like so many victims of abuse, be able to recognise it.

In 2015 I asked:

What will happen to the many people with disabilities in our State who will move from government homes to facilities run by churches, community services and for-profit providers as early as July next year? Who will be responsible for them? Who will be their guardians?

The fundamental question of who will be the guardian is the most important question the Government has to answer. I understand that the Government is trying to extract itself from the disability services sector by moving functions and responsibilities to the Federal Government and the private sector. Who will advocate for these people if they suffer abuse or neglect?

It has taken four years to get to this point, and the risks do not apply just to institutional care. Just last month the media reported on the alleged horrendous circumstances surrounding the death of a woman in New South Wales whose carer literally left her to rot.

The woman's fiancé, with whom she had been in a relationship for 15 years, is alleged to have left her in a recliner without food or water for 72 hours.

While her dying hours and her partner's guilty plea to manslaughter have been the subject of a recent court hearing, I ask: What about the days, weeks, months and possibly years that this woman suffered neglect at the hands of the person charged with her care and protection? What horrors did she endure, and for how long?

When the woman was finally transported to hospital her spinal bones were visible. Doctors knew immediately that she would not survive, and she was placed in palliative care. As The Northern Daily Leader stated, the Coroner's report revealed the rotted lesion that caused her death was probably present for months. Where was the oversight?

Prior to the recent State election the Women's Alliance, a coalition of 14 women's organisations, highlighted the issue of violence against women with disabilities and older women in its "Safe State" policy document, which states:

Women with disability can also be at higher risk of experiencing violence. One in five women in Australia have a disability. Over one third of women with disability experience domestic and family violence and up to 90 per cent of women with intellectual disability have been sexually assaulted. In Australia, 18.5 per cent of the total Australia population have some form of disability...

Additionally, older women and women from rural, regional and remote areas face increased rates of violence and additional barriers to addressing the violence.

I direct the Minister to the "Safe State" platform and suggest that he read it, particularly for its call on this Government to address the very complex situation for people with disabilities who suffer intersectional disadvantage. They may be women, people from a culturally and linguistically diverse community or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. They may even be lesbian, gay, transgender, queer or intersex. All those things can create even more barriers to accessing appropriate assistance. One of Labor's foreshadowed amendments to the bill will include children and young people with a disability in the legislation. This is vital. The argument against it is that these children should be picked up already by the child protection system. But that is not the case, and we know it.

We must simplify the process for keeping children safe wherever we can. We know from the Senate inquiry into violence against people with disability that narrowly defined jurisdictions lead to silos, which make it more difficult for people to know where to go for help. Children and young people with a disability are often on the cusp of the education and/or child protection system when their abuse occurs, or when they are finally able to start to articulate and report it.

Their abuse may even cause them to disengage from or leave school, at which point it becomes more difficult for them. When a child or young person is transitioning out of school we must ensure that they are not limited by the silos of government from accessing the care they need. I say this with great conviction because I have seen it happen in my electorate.

We must remove the arbitrary restrictions that would limit the effectiveness of the new Ageing and Disability Commissioner. The failure of child protection for children with a disability has meant that they have been unable to access justice and escape their perpetrators in adulthood. I have seen this with my own eyes. The onus is on the Government to educate everyone, but particularly those with disabilities, about respectful relationships.

Speaking specifically about women, the Women's Alliance "Safe State" policy platform states:

Improving the understanding of women with disability of respectful relationships and sexual, domestic and family violence promotes their safety and increases the likelihood of women seeking support if they are experiencing violence. Research has found that women with disability value learning from, and being supported by, their peers about respectful relationships and violence because they can relate to their experiences.

While the Government is funding a two-year pilot project for respectful relationships peer education for women and girls with intellectual disability, more needs to be done right across our society to support and encourage respectful relationships. I note that a media report today called again for all Australian children to have access to respectful relationships education at an appropriate age. In line with the suggestion by the Women's Alliance, the Minister should look to Victoria's Gender and Disability Workforce Development Program and People with Disability Australia's respectful relationships peer education training. Now that the Government has joined Our Watch, hopefully more can be done for all students in relation to respectful relationships and to empower young people to understand domestic violence, abuse and sexual assault in their personal relationships. [Extension of time]

This bill will address the gap that exists in current protections, where people are vulnerable to abuse and neglect in their own homes at the hands of those they know and trust. We also need to recognise that many people live in aged-care or disability care facilities—whether it is a group home or a larger institution—and these are their homes.

Their relationships with their carers are necessarily more intimate, and in order to protect clients and workers we must ensure the highest levels of accreditation, integrity and ethics among those who are charged with such care. We need to be clear that oversight is an important part of protecting these people from abuse, exploitation and neglect, and that it must, above all, be proactive. It must also cover the kinds of abuses that are difficult for police and other compliance bodies to deal with.

One of my biggest frustrations is that while we define "domestic violence" in legislation, including financial or emotional abuse, there is a very real lack of capacity in our legal system for victims of this crime to pursue their cases without having to pay for lawyers, forensic accountants, et cetera. Given that older people and people with disability are so prone to this kind of abuse, we must find better ways to address it as many of our most vulnerable do not have the capacity to deal with the issue.

In closing, I urge the Government not to stop here. As important as the commissioner is, we need to talk about empowering people with disabilities to raise their issues. Given the state of our current government systems and processes, when we acknowledge the lack of inclusion for older people and those with disabilities in our society—and things like wheelchair access, ambulant bathroom amenities, accessible information and more—we must also acknowledge the lack of inclusion in legislation and in the context of safety. We have a significant way to go in ensuring that police, child protection, family law, the courts and other parts of our legal system are fully accessible to everyone in our community.

Issues such as obtaining evidence, taking testimony and other barriers to justice must be addressed. I refer the Minister to an August 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald that revealed 1,140 cases relayed to the Ombudsman resulted in only 18 prosecutions. That is a damning indictment on a system that cannot cope with these complaints. What hope do we have in terms of proactive care and protection for these people if that issue is not addressed? Perhaps the most important role for the commissioner will be to empower people with disabilities and older Australians through inquiries into the systemic barriers they face in accessing safety and ensuring that they are able to live their lives without fear of violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation.

I note that our Federal colleagues have called two royal commissions pertinent to this legislation, with reports due in April 2020 and April 2022 respectively. I know they will have more to say and I am sure that the Minister will be open to making changes. The Opposition is ready and willing to assist as we get more information about the pathways we should follow in order to fully protect people from harm. We are getting better. We recognise the problem, and the solutions we find will be many and diverse. Like everything in this place, they must also be flexible to ensure that they are useful to the most vulnerable in our community. I again urge the Minister and the Government to consider the important amendments to the bill that the Opposition has foreshadowed. I commend the bill to the House.

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