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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 635

Senator COONEY (10.44 a.m.) —I have not had a great deal of time to look at the report of the Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, but clearly it is a very comprehensive report and those who prepared it need to be congratulated. I am glad to see that the committee was chaired by Senator Newman. I am glad to see her returning to the Senate.

  Clearly, the recommendations have been made with a great deal of thought. Today, in this chamber, the committee has received a lot of deserved congratulations. However, I sound a note of warning. I have no doubt that the committee took this aspect on board. We live in a free and democratic society, and to a large extent that involves letting go things that in a totalitarian state would not be let go. There was a famous English judge in the last century who said that truth could be loved too much.

  I do not want to dismiss the report in any way; it should not be dismissed because it is a great report. However, I want to sound a note of warning that if we encourage whistleblowers—and there are whistleblowers and police informers; most matters that the police investigate come about as a result of informers—there is the danger that we will become a society of people who spy upon our neighbours and report anything that we consider might be worthy of investigation.

  There is danger that this sort of procedure can be used by people to do damage to others, either through a belief that they deserve it because of a particular perception that the whistleblower has of the action taken by the person informed on, or simply as a means of revenge or of bringing that person down.

  Public interest disclosure is defined as disclosures of illegality, infringement of the law, fraudulent or corrupt conduct, substantial misconduct, mismanagement or maladministration, gross or substantial waste of public funds or resources, endangering public health or safety, and danger to the environment. It is left up to the informer or whistleblower to make a judgment about that and then for the agency to decide whether or not that assessment is right. The agency makes that decision without necessarily having heard from the person against whom the allegation is made.

  I want to sound a warning that, if whistleblower legislation is going to be introduced, it be introduced with a great deal of care because a great deal of injustice can be done to the people informed against.

  We are becoming a society that is more and more intent upon bringing people to book, no matter what. While I have been in parliament, telephone tapping has been extended in an exponential way. Bodies such as ICAC in New South Wales have been set up. As I said yesterday, that body has been responsible for some great injustices—particularly to Mr Greiner, for example. The CJC in Queensland was criticised this morning by Senator Parer, for whom we must have great respect. However, I might say that Senator Parer has used information supplied by other people to criticise the Goss government. Whether that is right or wrong is hard to detect from what he said. That is again an illustration of how whistleblowers can lead to injustice.

  We have this growth in policing powers. The NCA has been set up and we have had royal commissions into all sorts of things. But there must be a limit to this policing activity. I am inclined to think that, if we are going to introduce whistleblower legislation, it should be introduced with lots and lots of protections. My own view is that the legislation should not be introduced. I do not want the establishment of a society of informers. If the majority of people in the parliament believe that it should be established, it ought to be introduced with a great deal of circumspection.