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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 633

Senator COULTER (10.35 a.m.) —I rise to offer several congratulations and a couple of comments. Firstly, I congratulate former Senator Vallentine on introducing into the Senate the legislation from which this reference arose. Secondly, I congratulate the Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, under the chairmanship of Senator Newman, for an excellent inquiry and an excellent set of recommendations.

  Having been a whistleblower, I was very keen to see this sort of inquiry get under way. Because I could be seen to have a very strong vested interest in such an inquiry, it was not one that I was keen to initiate myself. Therefore, I am particularly pleased that this committee was formed, that it has carried out a diligent inquiry and has come forward with some very good recommendations.

  I would like briefly to pick up a couple of those recommendations and illustrate them by giving some examples from my own case. For over 20 years, I was a research scientist in South Australia. At the end of that time I was sacked for actions which involved whistleblowing. I think it is worth mentioning some of the facts because they bear very much on the likelihood of some of these recommendations being implemented.

  At the time I was working on the carcinogenicity of various drugs and various chemicals found in the workplace. I identified a new drug as one which was mutagenic and therefore potentially carcinogenic. This was not surprising because it was one of a class of compounds, several others of which had been shown to be mutagenic and cancer causing.

  I chose to attempt to publish this work in the Medical Journal of Australia to warn general practitioners that the drugs of this class should be regarded with some suspicion, because the original work on which the first drug of this group had been registered had been falsified. This came from a paper which had been published in the very prestigious Nature journal in 1976. The drug company, Searle, had been found to have very extensively falsified the research on which that first registration was based. I and a chemist colleague with whom I was working sought to include in our article in the Medical Journal of Australia several paragraphs from the article in Nature which drew attention to the falsification of those studies by Searle and to draw the conclusion that, therefore, general practitioners in Australia should review their prescribing practices with respect to all drugs of this class.

  As a consequence, I was told on two separate occasions by two different people that those already published paragraphs from the article in Nature could not be included in our article in the Medical Journal of Australia because the institute where I worked `received money from drug companies to do research'. I mention that particularly because on page xiii of the report the committee talks about the value of reporting wrongdoing and welcomes any initiatives, programs or strategies aimed at addressing this culture change. It was referring to the need to bring about a cultural change within the institutions in which the whistleblowers are working.

  The events that I have just recounted occurred in 1980, at a time before the government was placing so much emphasis on research institutions such as CSIRO, the universities and so on getting 30 per cent or more of their funding from private sources. Even then the cultural pressure was on for those organisations to attempt to suppress important information because of the inhibitory effect that the publication of that information may have on the acquisition of funds from private sources.

  I have difficulty in seeing, given the cultural change which is now moving in a direction different from the cultural change that the committee is recommending be brought about, how the hope that is being expressed by the committee can be realised. It seems to me that it is, indeed, a forlorn hope. Given the evidence that is now coming before the Industry, Science and Technology Committee in relation to CSIRO, in which a number of people are blowing the whistle on the suppression of very important information in CSIRO's possession, the government needs to review the pressure that it is applying, because it is inimical to the openness of science.

  I would like to turn briefly to the principal recommendation, which is the establishment of the Public Interest Disclosures Agency and the Public Interest Disclosures Board. I warmly commend the committee for those recommendations. The committee has correctly identified a number of characteristics associated with the suppression of whistleblowing which mark this as a separate type of activity that needs to be investigated and judged by an agency which has some special knowledge.

  Senator Newman has already pointed to some of the characteristics of the spurious charges that are brought against whistleblowers, such as that their work is not satisfactory; whereas quite often their work is of exemplary and high quality. These charges have been used as excuses to dismiss people from their employment. There have been charges that these people are mentally ill or deranged in some way, and they are sent off to psychiatrists and psychologists and given extended medical leave and so on. There is a whole range of actions which are taken against whistleblowers and which mark them out as special cases. I am very pleased to see that the committee has made these recommendations.

  I sincerely hope that, as Senator Newman said, the government accepts these recommendations and acts on them promptly. It is a very important area. The integrity of scientific activity in Australia depends upon the honesty of science; it depends critically on scientists who feel that institutions and agencies are going wrong being able to make public their concerns and being able to make these disclosures without action being taken against them and, through that process, bringing about a return of those institutions—particularly public institutions such as CSIRO and the universities—to the honest road on which those institutions should be going in the public interest.

  It is very important that the government should deal with these recommendations very seriously and very expeditiously because this is one of the mechanisms which will help to address that cultural shift to which I earlier referred and which I believe is moving the science and technical activity in this country in the wrong direction—a direction which is inimical to the public interest and certainly inimical to the interests of whistleblowers who might try to resist that force which government policy has placed upon them.