As the COP 27 packs up the conference halls and delegates return home, much is being made of our nation being welcomed back into the global climate action fold. But what the Member for Clarke has just revealed to us this morning is as serious as it is shocking and we must undertake an inquiry to get to the bottom of this.
The Member for Clark is a staunch supporter of whistleblowers. For decades he has been a safe harbour for those speaking out, offering advice and support. Or, like today, he has provided a megaphone when the truth needs the light.
Of course, the Member for Clark has similar experience. Just days before Australia’s entry into the war in Iraq, in March 2003 he resigned from the Office of National Assessments and went public with his belief that Iraq did not pose a serious enough threat to justify a war. As the Member for Clark has said, reflecting on the event:
“Like most whistleblowers, I was very reluctant to speak out. But people not so much choose to be whistleblowers, instead more likely they find themselves facing a truth so shocking it can’t be kept secret from the public.”
Whistleblowers should not suffer because they tell the truth. But that’s what we see, time and again. We have a system of inadequate protections which leave people exposed, victimised and prosecuted when they should be celebrated for their bravery.
Before Parliament rises in nine days, it is likely this country will have a National Anti Corruption Commission. Yet this achievement will be almost meaningless if we can’t promise those who report corrupt conduct the strongest possible protections in exchange. It is public servants, the officials and employees, who know what’s really happening, and they are the single most important way in which wrongdoing is brought to light
The NACC will have its own whistleblower scheme, yet it relies on the existing Public Interest Disclosure Act protections described as ‘‘technical, obtuse and intractable” in 2019 by a Federal Court judge. I welcome the Attorney General’s commitment for priority reforms to this Act, to be in place before the NACC opens its doors in mid 2023. This includes the key recommendations of the 2016 Moss Review. Yet these recommendations are already six years old. The world has moved on. I will be watching closely to make sure these reforms are not frozen in time.
On Wednesday morning alongside Senator Pocock I will launch a landmark report, Protecting Australia’s Whistleblowers: The Federal Roadmap, from Griffith University, the Human Rights Law Centre, and Transparency International Australia. This report lays out starkly how once Australia led the world in protecting our whistleblowers yet through the last two decades we have fallen way behind international best practice.
The report will set out 12 key areas of reform. The most important of these is reflected in the motion today: the establishment of an empowered and well-resourced Whistleblower Protection Commissioner to facilitate the effective implementation and enforcement of whistleblower protections.
This is an idea whose time has come, and the momentum keeps building. This was a key pillar of my 2020 proposal for an integrity commission. Next came the supportive comments of the Joint Select Committee examining the NACC Bill last month, that the review of “whistleblower laws should specifically consider the establishment of an independent Whistleblower Protection Commission”, noting the significant evidence the Committee heard supporting this step.
A dedicated independent statutory body would ensure that whistleblowing laws work in practice. It would be a one-stop shop for practical advice, assistance and guidance for whistleblowers. It would conduct independent investigations into detrimental actions and enforce legal protections when internal procedures of other agencies fail. And it would assist other agencies to uphold their own internal processes, championing best practice.
A whistleblower protection commissioner would bring profile and authority to this important function, just like Kate Jenkins, and Elizabeth Broderick, before her did as Sex Discrimination Commissioner. They put it on the agenda and shifted the conversation.
I would bet that for every David McBride and Troy Stolz, there are hundreds of people who face sleepless nights because they’ve seen something wrong at work and don’t know what to do about it. We owe it to them, to the taxpayers, and to the public good, to make the path clear. Let’s close the loopholes, fix this system and give brave whistleblowers the protection they are entitled to.