Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023


Public Interest Disclosure Amendment (Review) Bill 2022; Second Reading

11:14 am

Photo of Barbara PocockBarbara Pocock (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Public Interest Disclosure Amendment (Review) Bill. It's a really important debate that we're having here today, and this is a really important bill with more work needed. I want to thank Senators Shoebridge, Scarr, David Pocock and Whish-Wilson for their comments and I associate myself with many of the points that they've made.

As legislators, we have much work to do to make sure that we improve the quality of information available to us as decision-makers. We rely on the efforts of people who bring information to us to expose corruption and malpractice and bring to the attention of us, as senators, things that need to change to improve governance. Whistleblowers have such an important role to play in this.

Most importantly, as many of the other senators have said, we must protect and applaud whistleblowers and end the prosecution of people like Bernard Collaery, who has stood up for so long, so bravely, and whom I have had the privilege of meeting and talking at events with. We must also remember and applaud the behaviour of Witness K, David McBride and Richard Boyle. They are all heroes to the project of transparent governance, of response to serious errors in governance, management and activity in many parts of our government. They have brought to the attention of the international community activities that have really reflected on the character of Australian government and action in their attempts to improve the honesty and good practice of what we do and how we do it. So these are extraordinary people. They believed in truth, and we need to learn from their heroism.

They've paid a big price. Senator Scarr went through what being a whistleblower does. It's a sacrifice. It's a sacrifice not just personally but often, in many cases, by their families. These experiences take years out of the lives of families and they are years of sacrifice as families support whistleblowers, because whistleblowers have to find places that will keep them afloat while they carry out the very difficult actions of truth-telling.

Democracy relies on the disinfecting powers of whistleblowers. They are such an important part of that disinfecting power that we need in our government. I know this, personally, as a current participant in a committee of inquiry into consulting practices in our country, a set of practices that are now drawing on billions of dollars of public money. We are very dependent, as a senate and as a committee, on the bravery of whistleblowers coming forward into public discussion and bringing forward evidence and examples where practice within these very large public bodies and private organisations is very far from perfect—indeed, it ranges into corruption.

This bill is a very positive step and we welcome it. And there's more to do. It's a positive thing to see a government taking action on updating these laws. They are well overdue for it and, as we see, there is a broad consensus for reforms that are really quite significant, which this bill makes a really important start on. We've heard how the Moss review, from 2016, is already well out of date, so turning to its recommendations, taking them seriously and turning them into legislation is very important, but it's not enough. We need to do more and, while we commend the government for bringing this forward, we really want to see action much more significantly on a further range of overdue recommendations.

Even these changes will leave whistleblowers, those brave heroes, woefully unprotected and risk exposing them, as we've heard, to very significant financial cost as well as personal and family cost. As anyone who's supported a whistleblower knows, it's a really significant personal project that you give many years of your life to, in too many cases.

A comprehensive review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act is promised. This is what we've been given. It's not comprehensive enough, and this act will be applicable for the NACC's first complaints. That's really concerning, because we need much stronger machinery that can underpin and support the work of that activity and give that new integrity body the teeth and the processes that it needs.

We need a strong national anticorruption body that can act properly and with full force on the matters that come before it. We've heard about the experience of whistleblowers and how important it is that we put someone in their corner, not just their families, partners, kids or community but a whistleblower commissioner and a commission that will ensure that, for people who bring forward issues that are of very significant public importance and that are so important to this parliament, someone is standing with them as they commit their brave acts. We need whistleblowers, we rely on them, and we need to make sure that we give them the support they need.

The Greens referred this bill off to an inquiry because of concerns that we had, which are very widely shared across the community by organisations that know of this experience and how we need to change it. We know those concerns go to the issue of how this bill as it is currently drafted will have consequences that are unintended because of drafting that excludes, for example, many issues that should be covered within the bill. We also want to recognise that the bill, as it is before us, does not deliver the protection that whistleblowers really need.

As Senator Shoebridge has outlined, we have very real concerns. As Senator Whish-Wilson also pointed out, the question of the extent of the personal work related conduct carve-out is a real issue for us. There are a lot of stakeholders who have drawn attention to the fact that this is supposed to limit matters that are about bullying or workplace issues being taken to the NACC but it fails to recognise the very real experience of so many whistleblowers—that they do suffer personal consequences within their workplace. They're treated differently, and, as a Senator Scarr said, they can be made redundant. They miss out on promotion. They're excluded from all kinds of decision-making. As someone who has lived and worked for many years in very large organisations, I understand that many subtle practices can isolate and pressure a whistleblower, and there is often a set of behaviours and experiences that are intermingled with the activities of being a whistleblower. So we think the carve-out should apply solely to matters that are personal issues, and we need much more clarity around that question.

We recognise that the government's own amendments to this bill that passed in the other place go some way towards recognising those concerns—that's a good thing—but we need to go further. Developments in recent years tell us and a lot of experiences tell us that we need to protect whistleblowers better and we need to do better around defining personal workplace issues. There's a lot more that's needed.

There is a significant additional underlying issue—that is, the impact of the very, very overzealous use of secrecy provisions in laws that impact on whistleblowers, something that really needs to be addressed in the future. We've heard about the ongoing prosecutions of Richard Boyle and David McBride, which Senator Shoebridge went into. These prosecutions are a real dampener on people coming forward on public sector whistleblowing projects, and serious reform on this issue is really pressing.

These truth tellers are being prosecuted, and, more than any law that we pass in this place or any words that we say, it is our actions that will speak to prospective whistleblowers. They look at the fact that great penalties, for example, have been imposed on Richard Boyle and David McBride in practice, and they hesitate. It has a chilling effect on the behaviour of whistleblowers, and we need to do much better at protecting and ending those prosecutions, which are absolutely inappropriate. Everything those brave men have said has been shown to be right. Their prosecutions are continuing under Labor, and it is a travesty. It needs to end.

As senators and as people who have just passed a very large budget, we know that there are some very big spends in new areas coming down the pipe in our country. For example, there's $368 billion on submarines. We have a really big challenge in tax collection, keeping that honest and scrupulous and collecting the tax that we know taxpayers want us to manage, collect and treat in a principled and clear way, pursuing those who are avoiding tax or acting unscrupulously or unethically. We know that that kind of big spend has to be made in a way that avoids the perception or actuality of conflicts of interest. We need strong legislation that protects those big spends of billions of dollars so they actually go where they need to go, they get us value for money and they aren't associated with conflicts of interest or unethical practices.

This is a really important place where whistleblowers can blow the whistle and make a difference. Whistleblowers have an important impact on the way we govern. They can call out corruption and conflicts of interest, and honest government relies on them. It relies on their heroism and it relies on the sacrifices they personally make. We need to protect them. We need to protect them from bullying and ill treatment, and we need to protect them from all kinds of subtle practices in their workplaces which can deeply affect their lives and make the costs they personally face very large. So we all agree here that whistleblowers are often heroic.

I thank Senator Scarr for bringing to our attention the sacrifices of and the role that James Shelton and Brian Hood have played in calling out another important example of corrupt practice in our governance. He quoted the words of the judge reflecting on the 'adverse effects' on the families of those men and the 'tremendous courage' that they showed. That shows to all of us the importance of having strong protections in our whistleblower legislation and ending the inappropriate punitive prosecution of people like Richard Boyle and David McBride. We need to support and honour their efforts, and we need to pass legislation that does the right thing by whistleblowers and enables future whistleblowers to come forward and make the positive difference that they can to the quality of a decision that we as a parliament make and the quality of governance in our country.


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