Our democracy will be better for it: Empowering whistleblowers key to effective anti-corruption reform

We’re sorry, this feature is currently unavailable. We’re working to restore it. Please try again later.

Advertisement

Opinion

Our democracy will be better for it: Empowering whistleblowers key to effective anti-corruption reform

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.

In 2003, while working as a senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments, I discovered that intelligence information was being deliberately misrepresented by the government to justify the looming war in Iraq. This would ultimately cost countless civilian lives, destroy a country and facilitate the rise of Islamic State.

I knew the Australian public was entitled to know the truth. I had no other moral choice than to speak up, regardless of the cost.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was a reluctant whistleblower.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was a reluctant whistleblower.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Blowing the whistle cost me a great job and, in the turmoil that followed, my marriage ended. Close friends walked away from me. I struggled to find work and had little income for years. It was the right thing to do and I don’t regret it. But no one telling the truth should be made to suffer.

Whistleblowers should be protected, not punished. No wonder then, as a federal independent MP, I have sought to advocate for whistleblowers across Australia. I never downplay the risks they are taking. But if they want to go ahead, I help them when I can. And last year, the House of Representatives privileges committee confirmed that the parliamentary privilege I enjoy can have the effect of protecting some of the whistleblowers I help.

Loading

In a better world, an MP should not be needed to protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowing laws are important. That said, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which protects federal public servants, remains in need of an overhaul.

But ultimately Australian whistleblowers are not just suffering from inadequate laws. They also suffer from the non-existent enforcement of existing laws, and a lack of general support. That’s why I fully support the creation of a whistleblower protection commissioner within the federal government’s proposed National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

A dedicated statutory office would ensure that whistleblowing laws work in practice. It would provide guidance to those speaking up and litigate strategic cases when whistleblowers come under attack across the public and private sector. It would revolutionise whistleblowing in this country and ensure the NACC succeeds in helping address Australia’s integrity deficit.

Advertisement

The idea for a dedicated whistleblowing authority was first suggested at a federal level back in 1994 in a landmark senate select committee report. The proposal gained traction in a bipartisan parliamentary report in 2017, and Labor took this idea to the 2019 election. That’s a key reason why the concept of a whistleblower protection commissioner is central to the integrity model proposed by the crossbench – first by Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie, and more recently by the Greens and Helen Haines.

Loading

It was passed by the Senate, with Labor support, in late 2019. And since the election, the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus QC, has promised that the NACC legislation will be similar to that proposed by Haines. The commissioner’s role is not an optional extra. It goes to the heart of the NACC’s ability to be effective. Having a protective mechanism for whistleblowers is essential for them to come forward with evidence of alleged misconduct so they have the confidence they’ll be protected and their concerns taken seriously. Anything less would be a betrayal to those who are compelled to speak up in the national interest.

A statutory body supporting whistleblowers would put Australia among the fairest whistleblowing protecting systems globally, joining the Netherlands with their Huis voor Klokkenluiders (Whistleblowing House) and the United Kingdom, where proposals for an Office of the Whistleblower are well-developed.

NACC legislation will soon come before the parliament and the Albanese government has a golden opportunity to make good on that promise. With the guidance and backing of a whistleblower protection commissioner, the next generation of Australian whistleblowers will not have to pay the price so many others have paid for speaking up. Our democracy will be better for it.

Most Viewed in Politics

Loading