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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 189

Senator MARK BISHOP (8:28 PM) —The Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2007 is quite an important piece of legislation. By way of introduction, it is also way overdue. Such legislation has been in operation in New South Wales for the best part of 10 years. That begs the question: how serious is this government in implementing these amendments? I ask that question because the policy behind the amendment is about protecting freedom of information in the public interest. Yet, as we know, this policy is anathema to the current government. The Howard government’s hallmark in this area is to stem and control the flow of information and squash or reduce informed public debate. The government is not interested in transparency or in serious accountability. As we have just seen in the Customs portfolio, it is determined to jail anyone who dares to speak out, even if the information revealed by the whistleblower is correct. The threat of the Crimes Act being applied to whistleblowers is now commonplace—

Senator Johnston —Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. With respect to Senator Bishop suggesting that someone in Customs is to be jailed: he is to be sentenced on the 22nd of this month. I would appreciate it if the senator did not mislead the chamber. For his own benefit—I am not carping at him politically—I simply say that I would hate for him to have to come back and correct the record.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Thank you, Minister. Senator Bishop, in your contribution just be aware of that process.

Senator MARK BISHOP —On the point of order, if the particular person is to be sentenced, necessarily an option is a period of confinement.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator, I have ruled on the point of order and I have asked you to be aware of the process as you continue with your contribution. Thank you.

Senator MARK BISHOP —That is why we say that this amendment seems to be an aberration for this government. Nevertheless, putting that contradiction aside, we do not hesitate in saying that this bill before the parliament is welcome. In the interests of free speech and in protecting those brave enough to speak the truth, we welcome the amendment. We particularly welcome it for those in the media. They have been threatened with jail if they print those same facts and refuse to reveal their sources to the thought police from this government. I will not go into the technicalities of the amendment—the minister’s second reading speech has done that adequately—but I will spend time reminding the Senate and those listening about the stupidity which brought this issue to a head.

I addressed the Senate in similar terms in September 2005. Let me for the record reiterate those circumstances. This is especially important because that stimulus was trivial in the extreme. In fact, as a test case for the basic principle of journalistic protection, it is absurd. The circumstances were as follows. The then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, having procrastinated and stalled on policy for veterans, took recommendations of the Clarke review of veterans entitlements to cabinet. Instead of getting anything like what Clarke recommended—more than $600 million—the minister was rolled in cabinet. She got a touch over $100 million. Anticipating the announcement of her then coup, the PR machine had gone into overdrive. Veterans from across Australia were flown to Canberra for afternoon tea and cream cakes with the minister. They assembled for the planned announcement, straight after the government party room endorsed the package. Draft media releases for the minister, backbenchers and senators were drafted and printed. Fact sheets and questions and answers were also prepared. All were distributed around the DVA state network, in every state, for a coordinated splash. It was to be the peak of the minister’s career—and properly and rightfully so, had she been successful: the crowning glory of three years of doing little but cutting ribbons and handing out badges. But tragedy struck that morning.

The party room rolled the minister, the Prime Minister and the cabinet. They said it was not good enough, and veterans would not be happy, and they were absolutely right at that time. As a consequence, the PR machine was shut down. The veterans’ representatives were sent home without their cream cakes and the minister was sent back to try another set of proposals. Immediately after the party room revolt, details of the rejected package were revealed. Later media reports gave most of the detail. This was sourced to numerous backbenchers. They were proud of their nerve, and seeking credit for their rebellion. The humiliation of the minister began. She wore the shame of an incompetent cabinet decision—her grand parade had been rained upon in torrents. But there was more. The PR material, now on the public record, was junked. One set of that junk found its way to the Herald Sun. Of course, all the detail was revealed. More humiliation. No doubt the minister was enraged and, after counsel from those obsessed with secrecy, the witch-hunt began.

The department set off to find the leaker of this three-day-old material, which was already public knowledge. The department, to cover itself, called in the Australian Federal Police, who, by analysis of computerised phone records, identified a suspect. That person was charged under the Crimes Act by the DPP and suspended without pay. This minor misdemeanour, of revealing old information, became a hanging offence. This heinous criminal was to be punished. Dismissal was to be the most likely outcome—a career ruined and retirement plans in shreds. It was not a matter of national security, nor was it concerned with any great matter of government policy—this was a petty offence, barely an offence at all. But it was a serious political error. Hell hath no fury like an incompetent minister shown to be so publicly. The minister’s ego was smashed, her career about to end in ruins. Someone had to pay, with his head set on a pike in front of the Public Service gates for everyone to see and to learn from.

The tale continued to the Victorian County Court. A jury found the accused public servant guilty. Fortunately, the triviality of the offence was recognised. On appeal, the charges were dismissed—common sense at last prevailed. In fact it is a little bit like that Australian short story we all read as kids: John Price’s Bar of Steel, set in convict times. The bar of steel wrongfully possessed by the convict John Price was really a pin—but, by strict definition, an offence to be punished, with a severe lashing. The lesson had to be learned, and what better way of teaching it. Things have not changed since with the current government.

Meanwhile, none of this absurdity matters a tuppeny damn. The journalists who revealed the stale information—already on the public record for three days—refused to reveal their source. For that the court threatened them with a charge of contempt. That carries a penalty of jail. So, what was a trivial issue took on a more serious nature. Commentators, journalists and editors were all concerned. There have been far more important and high-profile leaks, including, many years ago, an entire annual budget, but to threaten the journalist concerned with contempt and jail was sensibly not pursued. So we say this bill is a useful circuit-breaker.

It is to be noted that this protection for the media, as Senator Stott Despoja outlined, is not absolute. The criteria set out to achieve that protection are clear, though unfortunately discretionary. There is still a strong public interest provision in the amendment. We say, openly and up front, that none of this should be taken as support for the practice of leaking information, but there needs to be balance, especially when other means of obtaining public information are strictly curtailed, as they presently are in Australia.

We all know that as a practice, illegal or otherwise, leaking works. It works as a check against those who transgress good governance and accepted values. It has often worked to reveal corruption, lies and incompetence. Many instances have been referred to in media commentary. The Prime Minister himself—we should acknowledge this—is a past master of grasping the political opportunities that leaking offers. His recent attempts to deny his advertising budget are just one example of his own exposure. Devious and deceitful behaviour is properly abhorrent to all Australians. Leaking is a direct result of that offence being caused to honest people. For the Prime Minister, it is a case of the biter bitten. It simply depends on which direction the information is flowing in and who is in control.

When I last addressed this issue in this place I offered support for the Liberals who might prevail and get this proposal introduced. I congratulate them for prevailing over the forces of darkness. It is therefore pleasing to see this amendment before us today, and we in the opposition are very pleased to be able to support it. If my memory serves me correctly, the minister who is introducing the bill before us today was one of those who were sensibly and critically involved in some of those discussions in 2005. On that note, I close my remarks and thank the minister for his interjection.