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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 635

Senator PATTERSON (10.50 a.m.) —I was not going to speak on the report of the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing because I have not yet read it. I wonder whether Senator Cooney has had the opportunity to do so, given that the report has only just been tabled. However, I could not sit here and listen to what Senator Cooney had to say without putting a couple of comments on the record to balance the comments that he made about what could be called vexatious whistleblowers.

  We know that there are some people who might want to undermine somebody in an academic department, in a government department or in a police force—for ends that are not the exposing of real corruption or other problems such as falsification of data, but to undermine that person's professional career. I think the committee was very conscious that that sort of thing can happen and that there are those sorts of people around.

  The committee was really addressing situations where whistleblowers have real evidence, a real concern for the public interest and a belief that public moneys are being used fraudulently. I would like to put on the record some of the comments that the committee made. General observation 9.3 reads:

The challenge for the Committee has been to devise a scheme which while ensuring the right of a person to report wrongdoing, also ensures that rights and freedoms are balanced. The Committee is aware that achieving the balance depends in practice on the protections which will be available under the scheme, not only to the whistleblowers, but to the subjects of whistleblowing.

The committee went on to say:

However, the Committee recognises the basic presumption of innocence, and seeks to ensure that allegations are investigated in such a way as to respect the fundamental rights of those accused of wrongdoing.

Further on in the report, the committee recommended:

. . . that where a person makes an allegation, knowing it to be false in a material particular, the making of such a false allegation should constitute an offence under the whistleblowing protection legislation. Where such an offence is proven, the person who made the allegation should be subject to a penalty being fine and/or community service orders.

The committee also recommended that the Public Interest Disclosures Agency not receive disclosures or complaints made anonymously.

  I believe that the checks and balances that the committee has suggested will help to alleviate some of the concerns that I have and that Senator Cooney has about people being wrongly accused of fraud and whistleblowers being protected while persons accused of a crime are not. I think the committee has done all it can to make recommendations that would protect against such situations.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Panizza) adjourned.