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Oct 30, 2012

Wilkie tires of waiting on whistleblower laws

Andrew Wilkie's move to introduce a whistleblowing bill prompted some action from a government hitherto content to ignore the issue -- but legislative action may fall off the "to do" list again.

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The whistleblowing bill introduced into Parliament yesterday by Andrew Wilkie had an interesting and immediate result.

“We are committed to finalising our position by the end of this year and will introduce legislation early in the new parliamentary year,” Special Minister of State Gary Gray said in a media release a few hours later. Gray also invited Wilkie to come and have a chat.

“Our position” relates to the government’s response to a major report on whistleblowing in the Australian Public Service, by the Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, headed by Labor MP Mark Dreyfus QC.

Dreyfus’s report was completed in 2009 — February 2009. If Gray is right and a bill is introduced early next year, that will make it four years since the committee reported. And given there’s an election due by August next year, there’s no guarantee a bill introduced then will be passed before Parliament is dissolved anyway.

Four years is a long time to “finalise a position”. It’s a “complex framework”, Gray said, but the government is keen to “build upon the foundations of” the inquiry. The government responded to the report over a year after it was tabled, in March 2010, and has been promising to introduce a Public Interest Disclosure bill ever since, so far without any bill materialising. Public interest disclosure was one of the areas that the government’s agreement with Andrew Wilkie “acknowledged” but without a specific commitment. Apparently the bill been caught in Gray’s in-tray, in endless redrafts that have significantly watered down the bill to the point of meaninglessness.

The Greens, who were instrumental in the passage of major whistleblower legislation in the ACT, have been repeatedly pushing for action from the government on the bill, and just three weeks ago tried to force the government in the Senate to indicate when it would move on the issue.

The Wilkie bill, drafted with advice from professor AJ Brown of Griffith University, enables all officials, including contractors and MPs, to report disclosable conduct either to superiors in their department, a minister, agencies overseeing the legislation (the Ombudsman and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security), or to the media if certain conditions are met (in essence, a total failure to investigate information or deal properly with the outcome of an investigation, or if it’s unsafe).

University of Melbourne’s Dr Suelette Dreyfus, who is currently principal researcher on the World Online Whistleblowing Survey, describes the Wilkie bill as potentially the best whistleblower legislation in the world. “It’s based on the groundbreaking ACT legislation, which was a very brave and well thought-through bill. It has mechanisms for compensation for the repercussions whistleblowers suffer, and checks and balances. Whistleblowers can’t go to the media unless other processes have failed or there’s really no safe way to do so, for example.”

Wilkie’s bill won’t be considered before next year anyway, also placing it in danger of falling off the legislative agenda unless the government or the Coalition gets behind it. And that would mean no whistleblower legislation until at least 2014 at the earliest.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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