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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 628

Senator DENMAN (10.10 a.m.) —I also rise to speak to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing entitled In the Public Interest. In doing so, I thank the chairman of the committee, Senator Newman, for a job very well done, committee members—Senator Chamarette, Senator Calvert and Senator Murphy—the witnesses and, of course, the members of the secretariat for their work throughout the committee process and the preparation of this report.

  When Senator Beahan became President of the Senate, I replaced him on this committee. I have found the work complex and rewarding. My initial thoughts when confronted with this issue were, I guess, like those of many others on the committee: how on earth is it possible to differentiate between rivalry and personality clashes and legitimate accusations? What sort of protection will be afforded the accused? And, of course, what long-term protection, in every sense, will be afforded the whistleblower? I imagined some very bitter disputes in large public and private organisations that would be impossible to effectively judge when one considered endless evidence of paper trails, personalities involved and who is really responsible to whom. I was also concerned with the costs associated and the duplication of current resources—for example, the ombudsman.

  As I remarked earlier, the issues are complex. However, overall, I am comfortable with the committee's recommendations. It is important, in my view, that we acknowledge whistleblowing as a legitimate form of action within a democracy. It is my belief that there will indeed continue to be occasions on which whistleblowing is the only avenue for ethical citizens to expose wrongdoing in the public and private sectors.

  It is clear that our nation's values and ethics have not fostered or encouraged individuals to whistleblow. There will need to be cultural change—Senator Newman has already alluded to that—that will require national leadership strategies in both the private and public sectors, together with education programs targeted at workplace ethics.

  It follows that, if we are to legitimately expect whistleblowing, we have to provide legislation to enable disclosures to be made in the public interest. Therefore, I endorse the recommendations that legislation be enacted to establish an independent agency to be known as the public interest disclosures agency and a public interest disclosures board. Agency accountability and board representation were key factors in our consideration. It is my view that the report recommendations clearly set out an achievable and democratic platform. Further legislative coverage across both the public and private sectors should be as widely constitutional as possible.

  The committee also strongly believes that cooperation between the Commonwealth, states and industry groups is essential if we are to see whistleblower protection reform at a national level. My concerns regarding the protection of the identity of whistleblowers and the subject of the disclosure are, in my view, covered. This will be achieved via the agency having the authority to protect the identity of the maker of the disclosure on application. The reverse of any such order will apply to the subject of the disclosure.

  I think our work has covered all issues that ensure that a fair assessment of this complex subject can be made. The independence of the agency is the key. It will enact, provided the recommendations are adhered to, an open system which facilitates the reform processes in the public and private sectors. It is our best chance to ensure that waste and corruption are exposed in the public interest. I commend the report to the House.