Transcript by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly

Program: ABC Radio National Breakfast

E & OE

KELLY: The federal Government has rejected calls for a Royal Commission into the abuse of disabled people in institutional and residential care. This is despite the fact that disability organisations have said that an independent, nationwide probe into this problem is vital and a matter of urgency. There are currently three separate inquiries into sexual abuse of people with disability at the moment. The Victorian Ombudsman is looking into the abuse of people with disabilities at the Yooralla facility in Melbourne. A Victorian Parliamentary inquiry is examining similar abuse in residential care. And a Senate inquiry into abuse of people with disability will also get underway in coming months. Senator Mitch Fifield is the federal Assistant Minister for Social Services and the Chair of the COAG Disability Reform Council. Minister, good morning.

FIFIELD: Good morning Fran.

KELLY: We’ve got a Royal Commission into child sex abuse at the moment. We had a Royal Commission into unions. We had a Royal Commission into pink batts. Why wouldn’t we have a Royal Commission into the abuse of people with disability, the most vulnerable of all groups in our community?

FIFIELD: Fran, understandably in the wake of the work by Four Corners and Fairfax into some of the things that happened at Yooralla, there have been calls for a Royal Commission. There have been calls for a federal inquiry. I’m very pleased that the Australian Senate has agreed, with the support of myself and the Government, to have a national inquiry into abuse of people with disability. Now that’s important work, as is the Victorian Ombudsman’s inquiry which you mentioned, and also the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry. What I want to do is look at the results of that work. And what I absolutely pledge is to maintain an open mind as to whether we need further investigative processes in the wake of these existing inquiries.

KELLY: But in a sense we’ve seen how this plays out. We’ve seen, in terms of sexual abuse of children within churches for instance, we’ve had state enquiries into that and we’ve had to end up with a Royal Commission. Why not, rather than relying on two Victorian enquiries and a Senate inquiry with limited powers, why not get a truly national picture on this emergency?

FIFIELD: I think it’s important to recognise that there is significant work taking place. We have the two Victorian enquiries….

KELLY: But it’s not national, is it.

FIFIELD: They’re important inquiries – the two Victorian ones. I wouldn’t want to make light of them.

KELLY: Of course.

FIFIELD: We can learn some important things from those, particularly as we’re looking to set up a new national quality and safeguards framework for the NDIS. And it’s important to recognise that historically, and still, the states have had responsibility for disability quality and safeguards. And we’ll be going into a period of transition with the full nationwide rollout of the NDIS and we’ll have a national quality framework. So the Victorian inquiries are important to help inform the new framework that we put in place. But it’s also important that we see what the work is of the Senate inquiry. And Senate inquiries can do very good work. So what I want to do is look at that from two perspectives: one, how it helps inform the development of a new national quality framework, but secondly, to better inform us as to the incidence of abuse of Australians with disability in institutional and residential settings. And I’m absolutely committed that if – as a result of that work and the Victorian work – I form a view that there is the need for some other investigative procedure, then that’s something that we can look at.

KELLY: I know that, since you’ve been the Minister in this area, you’ve been very active in this area. How widespread do you think this issue is of abuse of people with disability? Because the President of People with Disability Australia, Craig Wallace, says it’s widespread and he fears the size and scale of this problem will wind up looking something like the size and scale of the problem that led to the Royal Commission into the institutional responses to child sex abuse. Do you think it will?

FIFIELD: It can be difficult to get an overall picture because, as I say, the states currently have the responsibility. So the data is a bit disaggregated. But I want to be very careful not to overstate the incidence of abuse of people with disabilities on the one hand, but I also want to be equally careful not to underestimate what is very serious. Even if it was only a handful of individuals, it’s still too much, it’s incredibly serious, and we’ve got to make sure we do whatever we can to ensure that people who are perpetrators are prosecuted and brought to justice.

KELLY: I think we all know now it’s more than a handful of individuals. We know that just from what we’ve seen already. Isn’t that argument about the data being disaggregated, isn’t that one of the reasons for a call for a national inquiry. And I note that the former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes says a national independent inquiry as the capacity to obtain evidence that a parliamentary inquiry, a Senate inquiry, can’t, and that this type of inquiry is different because it will require specialists with significant knowledge of the sector to go in and really hunt this out and talk to people and deal with people who have difficulties communicating, many of them.

FIFIELD: If there is the need for a further investigative process, we will be in a much better position to frame that as a result of the work of the Senate inquiry. You’re right, there is disaggregated information on a state basis. But it’s important to recognise that at the moment, we still have in place the existing state statutory complaints officers for people with disability. We still have in place the investigative powers of the police. And we’re looking to make sure that we put in place the best possible national quality and safeguards arrangements for the NDIS.

KELLY: And I want to talk about that next, but what’s the timeline for that Senate inquiry? How long will that take?

FIFIELD: The Senate inquiry will report by the end of June. That also ties in well with the national quality and safeguards consultation that we’re doing nationally. And also the Victorian Ombudsman’s report is reporting in two stages. The first stage in the middle of this year. Again, so that can tie in with the work that we’re doing on the national quality and safeguards framework.

KELLY: It’s 13 past 8, our guest is Senator Mitch Fifield, the Assistant Minister for Social Services and Chair of the COAG Disability Reform Council. On that front, Minister, you’ve launched a public consultation to develop a new framework to protect vulnerable people with disability – a new national safeguards framework that comes in with the NDIS. Tell us about that. What is the key thing you’re most concerned about as we shift into the NDIS?

FIFIELD: At the moment in the seven NDIS trial sites around the country, it’s the existing state frameworks and safeguards that are in place. Obviously with a full national NDIS, we will want to have a nationally consistent quality and safeguards framework to take over from what the states are currently doing. And what I want is not to have lowest common denominator arrangements. What I want to have is the very best practice when it comes to quality and safeguards. There is currently a consultation paper which is out for discussion and input into the community, and that covers the full range of things such as how an NDIS provider will be registered, what might be the system for handling complaints, how can we seek to reduce things like restrictive practices.

KELLY: Do you think, as the Minister in this area, do you think there is something to those who say it’s time to close institutionalised care for people with disability, that the current model of keeping people segregated in homes and other services means people are vulnerable? I notice Craig Wallace again says abuse of people with disability festers in institutional environments where people are close together and away from the community. Do we need another model?

FIFIELD: Look the model has been changing over the last five, ten, fifteen years. Increasingly, each jurisdiction has been moving away from the historic type of institution which may have seen ten or twenty people with disability, with intellectual impairment, in the one residential setting. It’s much more now a case of an individual living with support in their own place, or a couple of people choosing to live together in their own place with support. So thankfully, things have been changing. But for me, the single most important thing is having the individual at the centre and in control, able to choose for themselves what is the sort of place they want to live in, who do they want to live with, and who it is that provides supports to them.

KELLY: Which is the whole ethos I guess of the NDIS. Mitch Fifield, thanks very much for joining us.

FIFIELD: Good to be with you Fran.