Labor slams 'shameful' govt delays to whistleblowing reforms, promises changes if elected

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The former attorney-general responsible for introducing public sector whistleblowing laws has vowed to address its long-overdue issues if Labor is successful at the next federal election.

Australia's public interest disclosure law was introduced eight years ago to protect government whistleblowers from reprisals by senior officials and promote integrity across the public service.

But critics, including human rights lawyers and integrity advocates, have argued it's in desperate need of tweaking for failing whistleblowers who do come forward.

Labor's legal affairs spokesperson Mark Dreyfus, who introduced the law during his brief stint as attorney-general, said it had been a "great disappointment" to watch his legislation be neglected from the sidelines after an election loss to the Abbott government.

It comes nearly five years after a review, conducted by respected public servant Philip Moss, was handed to government, offering 33 recommendations to improve avenues for whistleblowers in the public sector.

"I was quite conscious that it was not a perfect scheme," Mr Dreyfus said.

"It was an appropriate scheme but needed to be in operation for some years and then be reviewed."

The federal government responded to the recommendations in late 2020, agreeing in principle to 30 of the recommendations but has yet to release an exposure draft.

Less than 12 months from a federal election, the former barrister said he was committed to addressing some of the shortfalls outlined by Mr Moss some five years ago.

"It was shameful that the government took some four years to respond to Philip Moss's report," Mr Dreyfus said.

"We intend, in government, to act on Philip Moss' recommendations for necessary improvements to the public interest disclosure scheme."

Labor's legal affairs spokesperson Mark Dreyfus. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Labor's legal affairs spokesperson Mark Dreyfus. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash was approached for comment but a department spokesperson responded on her behalf confirming the bill was still in development.

It added the federal government "remains committed to ensuring that appropriate protections are in place to support whistleblowers".

'Serious government wrongdoing is staying hidden'

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said it had already been nearly five years since recommendations were first delivered to fix the scheme.

During that time, a number of whistleblowers, who revealed questionable conduct within agencies, had been pursued by Commonwealth officials.

"The government has expanded secrecy laws and overseen the prosecution of several public interest whistleblowers," Mr Pender said.

"When combined with the high profile raids on journalists, the reality in Australia right now is that people are being intimidated into silence.

"There is every chance that serious government wrongdoing is staying hidden."

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Former Australian Taxation Office debt collection officer Richard Boyle was charged with 24 offences after he revealed to the media the office's heavy-handed approach to retrieving debts from small business owners.

Mr Boyle lodged a public interest disclosure in 2017, which was dismissed by the tax agency, before going to the media.

A parliamentary report released last year found the ATO had conducted a "superficial investigation" into his concerns.

If he is found guilty, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Complicated, 'impenetrable' laws for whistleblowers

In 2019, a Federal Court judge called the law "technical, obtuse and intractable" after a Parliament House security guard alleged he had been fired after attempting to blow the whistle on senior officials.

The former security guard said he had tried to send his disclosure to an unnamed parliamentarian in 2018 but the envelope was wrongly intercepted by senior officers within the Department of Parliamentary Services.

He claimed his suspension, and termination soon after, was a reprisal for trying to reveal wrongdoings within the parliamentary department.

Justice John Griffiths said in his judgment the security officer's reprisal claim was not covered under the whistleblowing laws. The department had 90 days to undertake an internal investigation following a disclosure and external disclosures could only occur legitimately after that time had elapsed.

Extensions granted to the internal DPS investigation into the guard's disclosure meant he was not yet allowed to send the claims to an external person, such as a parliamentarian, Justice Griffiths wrote.

But he criticised the complex laws as "largely impenetrable" for lawyers, let alone regular public servants hoping to come forward.

Mr Pender said there was still time for the government to make good on its intentions to change the laws before waiting for another federal election.

"The Morrison government should release an exposure draft of its planned amendments, immediately consult with stakeholders and commit to enacting these vital reforms before the next election," he said.

"People who tell the truth about wrongdoing should be protected, not punished."

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This story 'A great disappointment': Labor promises fix for whistleblowing laws first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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