Australia must protect whistleblowers who expose what we have a right to know

Photo by Mick Tsikas/AAP: Attorney General Mark Dreyfus

Contributed by Joe Montero

Any change of government attitude that steers away from the persecution of whistleblowers revealing truths that are of public interest is welcome news. Australia’s Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has not exactly gone down this road., although he has publicly stated:  It is deeply frustrating that even after acknowledging our whistleblower laws are flawed and difficult to navigate”.  

Critics will say this does not mean a great deal. They have a point. It is far from jumping to the defence of whsitleblowers. But to be fair, he is in a difficult position, and some movement is better than none. After All, he and his government did drop the prosecution of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing whistleblower Witness K, who leaked information about the illegal bugging of the government of Timer Leste. Despite the disturbing fact that Witness K remains charged, this does represent some break with the past.

Photo by Mike Bowers/The Guardian: Bernard Calleary

It just doesn’t go nearly far enough. There still hasn’t been a major shift from the old two-party consensus that whistleblowers must be silenced, when there is no political advantage to be gained from them.

A minimal movement has come about because it is becoming more difficult to avoid public scandal since The Morrison government orchestrated the raids on the ABC and GetUp in 2019. The overreach targeted journalists to pressure them to disclose their whistleblower informants. These raids were associated with new laws to limit what journalists and editors could tell the public.

One, the David McBride case, involved disclosures human rights violations by members of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan. The other is quite different. This one is about Richard Boyle, who exposed how the Australian Tax Office used unethical practices to wrongfully impose debts on thousands of small businesses.

Both tried to report wrongdoings within the institutions in which they were working. Both met a brick wall of indifference and failure to act. Both felt they had been left with no choice but to disclose what they knew to the public. None of the perpetrators have had to answer for the wrongdoing. McBride and Boyle were charged and face a trial. Their cases are still pending.

David McBride and Richard Boyle

The persecution of these individuals is bad enough. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop here. Cases like these are not heard in a normal court. Under the cover of national security, they are heard in virtual secrecy, with restrictions on the rights to a defence and to cross examine witnesses. The notion of innocent until proven guilty is turned on its head. The capacity of media to report on what is going on is severely limited.

These in themselves are human rights violations that Australia should expect the present government to put an end to. 

Many are calling for special legislation to protect whistleblowers.

It would be remiss not to mention the Julian Assange case and what relevance it has to the other cases. Although he is not being held here in Australia and faces the prospect of prosecution in the United States, Australian governments have colluded in his persecution, and the present one, even after virtually admitting the wrong, is moving at glacial speed.

Julian Assange with his wife Stella

Assange’s case is pivotal. First, it is tied up with overreach of past governments and the Albanese government’s reluctance to truly change course. A succession of governments colluded with the persecution of Julian Assange, with the illegal imprisonment and cruel and unusual treatment of an Australian citizen.

WikiLeaks is really a drop box for whistelblowers, which revealed a mountain of truths that have been inconvenient to many governments, including those of Australia. Not because they violated national interests. This is bout self-interest, WikiLeaks exposed many illegal actions and widespread corruption among those holding power, who are doing everything they can to silence the inconvenient voice.

This is what the Assange case has in common with the other cases.

The Assange case is very much a test case about whether this sort of treatment will be expanded to include others right here in Australia. This is a threat to our freedom.

At issue here is whether Australia should accept government that is driving in this direction.

The Albanese government faces the choice about which side of the fence it will take. It can’t sit on this fence for ever. We should all be encouraging it to take the opposite side to the one its predecessors embraced.

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