New whistleblower protection law needs more transparency and removal of counter law

Contributed by Adam Carton

During the last federal election campaign, a new law protecting whistleblowers was promised. After the election the reality was that whistleblowers continued to be persecute. This is the reality. Nevertheless, a new Public Interest Disclosure Act (PID Act) has been framed, which it is claimed, will address the need.

Only in part. The setting up of an independent whistleblower authority is in the new version of the act is supposed to provide somewhere safe to go. Whistleblowers are brave people who expose wrongdoing to hold institutions accountable and prevent wrongdoing, and the current version of the act doesn’t protect them at all.

Having the institution on paper is one thing. How it works in practice is another. The answer is in the detail, and we don’t have this yet. There is another shortcoming. It doesn’t matter what law and institutions exist if other laws and institutions circumvent them.

In this case it’s 5.6 of the Criminal Code Act. It was introduced in December 2018 as a catch-all, to outlaw the release of information the government considers to be “inherently harmful,” and classified as secret. The definitions are so broad that they can cover almost anything. Journalists, academics, and the wider public are all targets, and conviction of the offence carries up to 10 years imprisonment.

According to the office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, there have already been several prosecutions under this law. Details are not released under this law.

Section 5.6 is supposed to expire at the end of this year, but the Albanese government hasn’t confirmed that it will, and there is concern that it will continue to exist.

The ongoing shift of government towards more opaqueness and less transparency is another concern. This provides fertile grounds for information to be hidden at all costs. Any law that provides the means to do this must go. Whitstleblowers will remain unprotected for as long as it stays.

The new protection law has not been legislated yet. The parliamentary review is still on. The more people and organisations raise their concern, demand more transparency and a say the better.

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