Zali Steggall voices her support for the Public Interest Disclosure Bill

15 February 2023

I rise today to speak on the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2022. This is an important piece of reform that strengthens our whistleblower protections. It reforms the current scheme, which in 2019 was labelled 'technical, obtuse and intractable' by a Federal Court judge. Why is this so important? Obviously, it is to encourage and enable more whistleblowers to call out wrongdoing and services but also because these are essential to the operation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which will soon be underway and for which we passed legislation only a few months ago.

Why is this so important? The big difference with the model of the National Anti-Corruption Commission that was passed by this government, as opposed to the one proposed by the Morrison government, is independent referral pathways for allegations or concerns about wrongdoings. This is where whistleblowers play such a huge role, because they have the ability to identify, be privy to information and raise the alarm about and awareness of those wrongdoings. Without protections though, they then face retribution from government and face prosecutions. I should say it was very commendable that one of the earliest actions of the government was, in fact, to drop the prosecution of Bernard Collaery.

There are, of course, still many cases on foot. The most prominent, of course, is Julian Assange, who has been languishing for much too long without any real active engagement in obtaining his release. There are also McBride and a number of others. It is really important for us as a society to have whistleblower protections because they play an intrinsic role in anticorruption, ensuring that Public Service decisions are made for the good and that there isn't a corruption of processes.

As many have outlined, this bill gives effect to longstanding recommendations and improvements to the act. It will: give greater flexibility in the way that agencies handle a public interest disclosure, including information sharing, so that disclosure can be investigated by the most appropriate agency; increase protection for disclosers; give witnesses the same protections as disclosers; provide greater oversight of the scheme by the Ombudsman and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security; allow disclosures to be investigated under another law or power, including—welcomely—the National Anti-Corruption Commission; and remove personal work-related conduct from the Public Interest Disclosure scheme unless it relates to systematic wrongdoing or is reprisal action for a disclosure. These changes are welcome and will deliver immediate improvements to whistleblower protections. They respond to many of the concerns and recommendations made on the 2016 Moss Review of the act. I note for members of the now opposition that for so many years it was in their power to make these amendments much sooner, and I think it would have been to the benefit of Australians to have had those amendments and recommendations made.

I welcome the fact that the government has committed to a comprehensive review and potential redraft of the Public Interest Disclosure Act to address the complexity of the scheme. I urge the government in conducting that review to consider the implementation of a whistleblower protection authority, as advocated for strongly by the member for Indi, the member for Clark, and Transparency International Australia—among others. The Human Rights Law Centre said that these reforms are an important first step—however, there are large technical changes to make on administrative improvements, and the reforms don't yet address the fundamental issues with the law. We need a comprehensive reform of the legislation to address private sector, public sector and media whistleblower protections. AJ Brown of Griffith University points out that our laws are still very reliant on whistleblowers having the legal resources and the money to be able to go to court and fight for their own protection. This puts a very onerous responsibility on them when, as a society, we benefit from their courage and bravery in becoming whistleblowers because they alert us to wrongdoing and corruption. A whistleblower protection authority would aim to address that gap.

In conclusion, I welcome this reform. I commend the Attorney-General for taking on these recommendations and urge the government to expedite its review of the legislation to ensure protection for whistleblowers in the future. I take this opportunity to again urge the government to act on the case of Julian Assange. It has been way too long. It is intractable, I appreciate that, but there must be a way to resolve that issue—and in relation to McBride as well. We need to have a situation where it is the alleged wrongdoing that is prosecuted, not the whistleblowers.