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Thursday, 26 September 2002
Page: 4964

Senator MURRAY (10:23 AM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2001 [2002] as a private senator's bill in June of last year. The report of the committee, which is a unanimous one, is an invaluable addition to the body of work on this vital accountability area. I thank the witnesses for their input, without which we could not have got the insights that we have. This bill is based on one simple principle: that those who have the courage to speak out against corruption and impropriety deserve protection. Despite strong and generally unanimous Senate pressure, certainly since 1994, successive federal governments have shown a reluctance to embrace this principle and to establish comprehensive protection for whistleblowers. The only protection available for the public sector is under section 16 of the Public Service Act 1999, and it is manifestly inadequate—a point the committee unanimously makes.

Whistleblowers play an important role in ensuring the accountability of government. They are individuals who, by reason of their employment, come across information that reveals corruption, dishonesty or improper conduct at any level of government. When such people bring this information to the attention of the appropriate authorities, they must be protected from retribution. Whistleblowing is often the only way that impropriety can be exposed. However, this can come at a significant personal and career cost to the whistleblower. The often justified fear of reprisal can stop potential whistleblowers from coming forward. We should always recognise that whistleblowers are acting in the interests of us all when they expose corruption or improper conduct. Unless we can provide a means of encouraging them, corruption or improper conduct can continue unchecked.

This state of affairs is clearly not in the public interest. The state and territory governments almost unanimously now have whistleblower protection bills, and the federal government needs to catch up. While the exposure of improper conduct can be embarrassing for federal governments, this does not justify allowing such conduct to continue by refusing to protect those who would expose it. Experience both in Australia and overseas has shown that whistleblowers and their families are often harassed and suffer emotionally and financially as a consequence of the whistleblower having exposed unacceptable conduct within the organisation. The public interest demands that public employees be able to expose impropriety without that fear of reprisal.

The bill that I introduced, which was not perfect and would be considerably improved by the recommendations of the committee, is an important step in the right direction. The committee's report is another important step. It points to good improvements that can be made to the bill and is a welcome consideration of the necessary features of a legislative regime to protect public interest disclosures. I am hopeful that it may provide the impetus for a legislative response by the government on this issue. The response will not come until there is an appreciation by government both of the public interest in encouraging whistleblowing and of the general support of parliament and parliamentarians for it. Those witnesses who appeared before the committee illustrated both points, and I hope that the government will carefully consider their testimony and the committee report which arose from it.

In conclusion, I return to the principle that people should be encouraged to make disclosures that are in the public interest to the proper authorities without fear of recrimination. Those people who put their careers and livelihoods on the line to expose impropriety for the benefit of the community as a whole deserve our protection. I thank the chair, the committee members and, in particular, the committee secretariat for their hard work on this report. I thank the witnesses. I strongly encourage the government to consider the report carefully with a view either to accepting my own bill, as appropriately amended, or to developing their own legislative response.

Question agreed to.