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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5276

Senator FEENEY (8:23 PM) —Tonight I want to examine the extraordinary double standards applied by the Liberal opposition on the matter of ethical behaviour by public servants. Recently, we saw the spectacle of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Turnbull, and his sidekick in this place, Senator Abetz, admitting that their false and outrageous accusations of corruption and dishonesty against both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer were based on a forged email provided to them by a public servant—of course, I speak of Mr Godwin Grech. Mr Turnbull has been asked several times by journalists about the nature of his long-term relationship with Mr Grech. He has steadfastly refused to answer these questions. When Kerry O’Brien persisted with this line of questioning on ABC television recently, Mr Turnbull simply clammed up and refused to say anything, but the questions will not go away. Why did Mr Turnbull and Senator Abetz so readily accept the allegations made by Mr Grech against the Prime Minister and the Treasurer? Why did they do nothing to verify the faked email which Mr Grech waved in front of them but never actually gave them?

Senator Brandis —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I have listened carefully to the speech thus far and it is very clear that this refers directly to a matter currently before the Privileges Committee. For that reason, might I respectfully submit to you, Sir, that the speech, to the extent to which it does reflect on a matter currently before the Privileges Committee, is out of order.

Senator FEENEY —I can very happily comply with the request from Senator Brandis. My speech does not go to the matters being put before the Privileges Committee.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Senator Brandis?

Senator Brandis —Senator Feeney knows what he proposes to say next. None of us can know that, but I invite you to rule, Mr Acting Deputy President, that no matter that is the subject of the current reference to the Privileges Committee can be properly addressed by the senator.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator Brandis. I am happy to rule on the point of order and to make it clear to Senator Feeney that he cannot address any of his remarks to the matter that is referred to the Privileges Committee. Senator Feeney, you can speak generally to matters but not directly to matters that have been referred to that committee.

Senator FEENEY —Thank you very much, Mr Acting Deputy President. Tonight I want to address the issue of whistleblowers and in particular the inconsistency of the Liberal Party—the opposition—and their treatment of whistleblowers. I want to contrast their attitudes of the present with their performance when they were in office. Senior members of the opposition have suggested that it is somehow okay for public servants to leak information for political purposes to the opposition—and, of course, I mean any opposition—and have drawn a spurious comparison between such political leaking and genuine whistleblowing, which of course is the act by a public servant of reporting illegal or improper conduct to the appropriate authorities. I wish to speak about whistleblowing—and genuine whistleblowing—as opposed to what might be better characterised as a political leak. Genuine whistleblowing is protected by law, as it should be. Politically motivated leaking is not. Section 70(1) of the Crimes Act says:

A person who, being a Commonwealth officer, publishes or communicates, except to some person to whom he or she is authorized to publish or communicate it, any fact or document which comes to his or her knowledge, or into his or her possession, by virtue of being a Commonwealth officer, and which it is his or her duty not to disclose, shall be guilty of an offence.

So how did the current opposition, when they were in government, treat public servants they suspected of leaking information to the then opposition? In this respect I want to remind the Senate of a particular case. In 2003 the Howard government began investigating an officer of the foreign affairs department they suspected may have been responsible for leaking the details of a conversation between the then foreign minister and a foreign diplomat. This suspicion was apparently based upon a claim—later found to be false—by an informer within the department. As I say, that claim made by that informer was later found to be without foundation. Nonetheless, the investigation proceeded. In the course of their search of this officer’s computer, however, investigators turned up a 2002 email the officer had sent to a staff member of an opposition frontbencher. That email said:

More thoughts on the white paper. The list of individuals consulted could form the basis of an estimates question (it may already have been asked—see Hansard). Regardless, the release of the white paper gives us (DFAT) an excuse to consult with everyone, NG0s, academics, etc—bit of outreach.

In that email—the contents of which I have just quoted—the officer did not disclose any privileged or confidential information. In fact, what that email clearly did was direct the opposition, through the opposition staffer, to go and look in Hansard. Yet on the basis of that email this officer was dismissed from his employment on the grounds that he had breached the code of ethics of the Public Service, in that he had entered into unauthorised contact with an opposition staffer. The officer who had given false information concerning his colleague, on the other hand, was later awarded a significant diplomatic posting by the Howard government.

It is good to record that the dismissed officer, with the staunch support of the Community and Public Sector Union, embarked upon a significant campaign to clear his name and have his position reinstated. I think I should also note that there was persistent questioning at estimates about these matters by then Senator Robert Ray. In 2007, the officer finally won reinstatement and, indeed, compensation, when the Industrial Relations Commission found that he had been unfairly dismissed. It is interesting to note that, in the then government’s pursuit of this officer—the officer they feared was having unauthorised contact with the opposition—it spent something in the order of $1.5 million. In particular, the then government spent $700,000 investigating this officer, hiring two external consultants. When the time spent by DFAT officers and the pay accrued by the officer during the three years he was suspended are taken into account, the entire exercise of pursuing this officer cost the Australian taxpayer at least $1.5 million. The Industrial Relations Commission found that the treatment of this officer by the Howard government was ‘harsh, unfair and unreasonable’ and that his dismissal had been based on false and malicious allegations by a fellow officer who had a history of making such allegations.

That was how the Howard government treated public servants who came under political suspicion, on the flimsiest of evidence, of leaking information to the then opposition. So when they were in government the Liberal Party took ruthless action against public servants they suspected—even on the flimsiest of evidence—of leaking information to the then opposition. That is how the Liberal Party behaved in opposition. I think it is apparent that, in considering the actions of a whistleblower as opposed to an officer engaged in leaking, there are enormous distinctions. But here the relevant point is that, despite the utterances of the opposition in declaring itself to be the defender of whistleblowers and to encourage such activity and to defend it as a legitimate part of the public policy process, their deeds in office tell the lie that that is.

I would simply finish on this note. Whistleblowing, while a legitimate and important activity—something that obviously brings to the parliament or the relevant officers allegations or information that pertains to unlawful, improper or, dare I say it, even corrupt activity—is not something that the other side of politics respected in their time in office. Rather, what we saw was the pursuit—even to the point of $1½ million of taxpayers’ money—without mercy and without qualification of any person they believed fostered alternative political views inside the Public Service and engaged in even the most harmless contact with the government. I think on that basis the rhetoric of the Liberal Party stands very starkly at odds with their actions.