Greater protection for whistleblowers

By Angela Dorizas

Public servants who blow the whistle on maladministration will be protected from prosecution under a proposed Federal Government scheme.

Cabinet Secretary, Senator Joe Ludwig, last night unveiled Australia's first federal law on whistleblower protection.

“The Rudd Government is progressing its election commitment to ensure appropriate processes are put in place, and protections offered, for public interest disclosures within Government,” Senator Ludwig said.

The Government’s announcement comes in response to a report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on whistleblower protection.

“We have carefully considered the recommendations of the Committee,” Senator Ludwig said.

“The Government agrees wholly to 10 recommendations, agrees in principle to 11, agrees in part to one and does not agree to four recommendations.”

Senator Ludwig said the Government’s model went further than the Committee’s recommendation in regards to the types of public interest disclosures that may be made to a third party, including the media.

“Matters that not only threaten immediate and serious harm to public health and safety, but also matters relating to corruption, maladministration, wastage of public funds and official misconduct, may also potentially be disclosed to third parties,” he said.

“Australia’s federal laws currently offer very few protections for public interest disclosures. The Rudd Government’s response moves to change that.”

The Government anticipates that the legislation will be introduced this year.

The new national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, welcomed the proposed legislation.

“New laws to protect whistleblowers are long overdue,” Ms Flood said.

“Currently public service staff have no protection and the way issues have been handled has been inconsistent.”

Ms Flood said whistleblower protection laws would help restore public confidence in the Australian public service.

However, she cautioned public servants against treating the legislation as a “free for all”.

“There is an onus on public service workers to ensure complaints are reasonable and serious,” Ms Flood said.

“It does not give public service workers the right to openly criticize policy they disagree with.”

Secrecy and openness

Last week the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) tabled in Parliament the final report of its review of Commonwealth Secrecy laws.

It found that secrecy laws and the prosecution of whistleblowers sat “uneasily” with the Government’s commitment to openness and accountability.

The 15-month inquiry resulted in 61 recommendations for reform, setting out a principled framework for reinforcing open and accountable government while ensuring adequate protection of government information that should be kept confidential.

The ALRC identified 506 secrecy provisions in 176 pieces of Commonwealth legislation, including 358 criminal secrecy offences. It also found an over-reliance on criminal sanctions and inconsistency in the framing and elements of specific secrecy provisions.

ALRC president Rosalind Croucher said a key focus of the ALRC inquiry was to “wind back” the use of criminal sanctions for the unauthorised disclosure of information.

“Criminal sanctions should only be imposed where the unauthorised release of information has caused, or is likely or intended to cause, harm to identified public interests,” Professor Croucher said.

“In most cases, unauthorised disclosure of Commonwealth information can be deal with through better education and training, improved information-handling practices and, where necessary, public service disciplinary procedures.”

The ALRC recommended that every federal agency develop and publish information-handling policy and guidelines to clarify the application of secrecy laws.

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