What Happened to Whistleblower Reform?

David McBride, Bernard Collaery and Richard Boyle are currently facing jail time for blowing the whistle on government misconduct. McBride’s disclosures relate to the Afghan war crimes and Collaery’s to the bugging of East Timor government offices.

The lesser known of the three, Boyle’s disclosures – leaked to Four Corners and Fairfax after an internal disclosure was not acted upon – showed the “performance-based” management of ATO staff driving more coercive debt recovery measures like garnishee notices. These allow funds and other assets owed to the ATO to be recovered from third parties, like banks, without consent or even notice to the affected person.

Boyle, McBride and Collaery are no doubt wondering what became of a 2016 inquiry into law reform to protect whistleblowers. Under the Turnbull leadership, an independent review was commissioned into the Public Interest Disclosure Act (2013). The Act regulates when public-sector whistleblowers can breach confidentiality provisions in the public interest.

The review, made public in 2016, found “the experience of whistleblowers” since 2013 “had not been a happy one.” Many had experienced “reprisal” despite the legality of making public interest disclosures.

It recommended removing publication of “protected information” from criminal punishment if a whistleblower’s disclosures were not acted on internally. It also suggested a dedicated external body to handle whistleblower complaints.

The federal government did not respond to the review until December last year, four and a half years after receiving its recommendations! It agreed to the recommendations in writing, but has not progressed the situation since then.

Meanwhile, the office of Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, is aggressively pursuing secrecy in its legal battle with Collaery. Cash’s office wants to prosecute Collaery for revealing the spying on East Timor, without admitting the spying took place.

After losing in the ACT Court of Appeal in its wish to have the trial conducted secretly, the government then sought to have the court’s judgement redacted. When the redactions were not sufficient, it decided to take the redaction of the Court of Appeal’s judgement on conducting the trial against Collaery in secret to the High Court.

These actions have been matched by new secrecy and surveillance powers. Under the cover of endless legal procedures, ignored inquiries, and new laws, the government seems happy to shamelessly contradict the public interest in whistleblower protection and institutional accountability.

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