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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 629

Senator CHAMARETTE (10.15 a.m.) —I rise to wholeheartedly support the final report of the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing. I would like to say at the outset that being a member of the committee has certainly been an outstanding experience—both in the way the committee has gone about its business and the often deeply moving evidence with which we were presented during the hearings we conducted around the country. For me, the tenor of committee meetings was significantly better than that of other committees I have attended.

  The chairperson, Senator Newman, deserves commendation for the way in which the committee operated. The meetings were always cordial, and there was a sense that the committee was working together to produce a first-class report. I do not think this is a matter that the committee is congratulating itself about, even though I believe that the support we received from the secretariat and the work that was done was of the highest quality. I think we were expressly motivated by the witnesses who made written submissions and also appeared before us. There is no doubt that the motivation of the committee's work was increased by the integrity and credibility of those witnesses.

  The evidence presented to the committee was often very upsetting for us, as we heard case after case of people's lives being destroyed by the events that followed their whistleblowing. It is clear to all of us that no amount of legislative or bureaucratic intervention would have reduced the gross personal damage to these individuals.

  Whistleblowing is an action taken by individuals. Often an individual, in taking that action, incurs the wrath of an entire organisation. In other instances, the action may not threaten the organisation but does threaten other people within the organisation who are more powerful than the whistleblower. Because of this, it is often hard for a whistleblower to be heard within the ordinary complaints processes of the organisation and it is also likely that the whistleblower will have great difficulty remaining in the organisation, or at least in the same job within the organisation.

  The evidence we received showed that usually a person who was blowing the whistle within their organisation was doing it from the very best of interests—not from any self-interest but from a concern that they would be doing their job and that the agency or organisation of which they were a part was to be operating at the highest standard possible.

  Unfortunately, a frequent consequence of whistleblowing is that other people no longer feel that they can trust the whistleblower. They see the person's action as disloyal or breaching an unwritten code of conduct—a code of conduct based on `not dobbing in a mate' or not speaking out, being crushed and having other people around you crushed as well. It is for these reasons that it was very difficult, and still is, to find a mechanism which is capable of providing a satisfactory or lasting protection for whistleblowers.

  The committee's terms of reference in conducting its inquiry involved examining, in particular, firstly, what persons and organisations as subjects of whistleblowing should be covered by the legislation; secondly, the nature of any protection that should be extended to whistleblowers and to the subjects of whistleblowing; thirdly, whether a new agency should be created to receive and investigate disclosures and to investigate any discrimination suffered by whistleblowers as a result of these disclosures, or whether an existing Commonwealth agency should have that role; fourthly, what powers any investigating body should have; fifthly, the nature of any protection that should be extended to any investigating body and its members; and, sixthly, what remedies and penalties should be provided for whistleblowers and for the subjects of whistleblowing.

  The terms of reference were extended to include an examination of the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 1993. On 12 December 1991, former senator Jo Vallentine, then senator for the Greens (WA), introduced a private member's bill entitled the Whistleblowers Protection Bill. Following her resignation from the Senate in January 1992, I gave a commitment to pursue that or similar legislation early in my term as successor.

  I am indebted to the committee for extending the terms of reference to include an examination of the Whistleblowers Protection Bill. I can express nothing but the greatest satisfaction for the way in which the committee dealt with that report. The committee looked at the bill and took evidence on it from many different sources. A lot of the proposals covered in the bill were actually adapted or taken in a more appropriate form to be part of the recommendations of this committee report. In particular, I think the committee accepted some of the recommendations that had been made and then decided that further consideration was not required.

  I am very grateful because it is not very often that a private member's bill can get the attention of a committee. The major satisfaction I have is that my commitment to former senator Jo Vallentine was able to be completed in a highly satisfactory way. I believe that the outcome of the report is such that both of us can feel that we have been very involved in the process. We are very grateful that the outcome is even better than we could possibly have hoped for. I express my gratitude for that.

  There are members of the committee whom I feel it is appropriate to thank. I have already thanked the chairperson, Senator Newman. I thank the deputy chairs—Michael Beahan, until he left to become President of the Senate, and then Senator Shayne Murphy—and Senators Paul Calvert and Kay Denman. Working with them on the committee has been a pleasure.

  The secretariat are worthy of receiving our utmost gratitude. I thank Elton Humphery for all the work he put in. I also thank Yvonne Marsh, the principal research officer, Winifred Jurcevic, the executive assistant, Sue Irvine and Angela Stanley for their help during the inquiry stages of the committee process. They can all be very proud of the final outcome.

  I think we also should recognise the valuable contribution made by many whistleblowers, particularly members of Whistleblowers Australia and the Whistleblowers Action Group in Queensland, for their work during the course of the inquiry. I have already mentioned that the evidence of whistleblowers who shared their experiences was enormously valuable. I note also the contribution of Senator Coulter, who shared of his own experiences.

  The terms of reference of the committee did not allow for the consideration of individual cases. This, I believe, created great difficulty because a lot of the information we were given was actually based on very painful and distressing experiences of people who had blown the whistle. We were not able to take up such cases because the committee was not empowered to determine the rights or wrongs of individual cases which were attracted by the inquiry. The function was to look to the future in respect of whistleblowing legislation, not to become an avenue for whistleblowers to raise their cases in the expectation that specific action could be taken. Accordingly, when advertising the inquiry the committee included the following comments:

While the committee appreciates that there exists evidence which relates to personal and specific instances of whistleblowing the Committee will be confining its inquiry to the Terms of Reference . . . not be investigating or pursuing specific cases.

I think we owe a debt to those people. We were very concerned about the accounts that they gave and the lack of appropriate recourse that still exists. The Queensland hearings in particular raised matters which needed further inquiry and resolution. I believe that there is hope for such people in the setting up of the public interest disclosure agency process. But I regret that it cannot possibly meet the expectations and the needs that were expressed to the committee. (Extension of time granted) The committee made recommendations and tried to develop an approach to whistleblowing that would reinforce the positive nature of the contribution made by people who blow the whistle in the public interest. I commend the committee's report and the recommendations to the Senate. I also express the hope that the government will take this further and enact the appropriate legislation to see that the committee's efforts and those of the witnesses do not come to nought.