Special Minister of State John Faulkner today committed to legislation establishing a “preferred model” for whistle-blower protection in 2009, based on the outcome of a House of Representatives committee inquiry into ways to broaden and strengthen public interest disclosure.

The House of Reps Standing committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, chaired by Labor MP Mark Dreyfus QC, commenced its inquiry in July and is scheduled to report by the end of February.

Faulkner was speaking this morning at the launch of a new collaborative study on whistleblowing by a Griffith University-based team of researchers. The study found that more than 20% of whistleblowers were mistreated by their agency or employer after reporting wrongdoing. Most reported stress as a result of whistleblowing, with more than 40% reporting extreme stress.

Faulkner acknowledged that current Commonwealth whistleblower protections were inadequate, suggesting that they were too narrow in their protections and that there was a case for extending them beyond the confines of the Public Service Act — for example, to ministerial and electorate office staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act.

A similar whistleblowing inquiry is underway in NSW — a part of the shabby and wholly inadequate response of the Iemma Government to the treatment of Gillian Sneddon following her cooperation with police in the investigation of Milton Orkopoulos. The treatment of Sneddon remains – the case of Allan Kessing aside — one of the most egregious examples of whistleblower punishment – in her case, by the NSW ALP and the NSW Parliament.

After she was locked out of Orkopoulos’s office following the leaking of her cooperation with police by Parliamentary staff, Sneddon suffered serious stress-related health problems. Robert Coombes, Orkopoulos’s successor as MP for Swansea, refused to let Sneddon work for him, although he took on two other Orkopoulos staff, who had stayed “loyal” to the Minister (including by refusing to report the original allegations against Orkopoulos, which led to his conviction). Coombes is a member of the committee undertaking the NSW whistleblower inquiry.

After an extended period on accrued leave and worker’s compensation, Sneddon’s employment as an electorate officer was terminated on 22 February this year. Sneddon remains unable to work and has had her life wrecked by her treatment at the hands of her notional employer, the NSW Parliament. She was hospitalised for depression in 2007 and believes the NSW ALP — of which she was a member for a number of years – hoped she would die in order to remove the embarrassment she continues to cause them.

Sneddon was also given misleading advice about her sick leave and worker’s compensation entitlements by NSW Parliament staff. She is currently struggling to get by on $340 a week. A compensation claim has been under negotiation for several months, but she has had to offer her house for sale due to mortgage pressure.

Sneddon isn’t even a whistleblower, strictly speaking. She simply assisted police with claims of disgusting and criminal behaviour by the man she worked for. She did what any responsible member of the community would do, and she has paid for it with her career, her health and now her home.

The issues raised by Sneddon’s treatment go beyond whistleblower protection to the heart of the deeply-flawed system of employment in our politicians’ offices. Sneddon’s notional employers, the NSW Parliament, failed to provide her with basic protection or confidentiality; instead, the interests of an accused paedophile were seen as a greater priority than her’s. Nor was her union, the Public Service Association, the slightest help — although union fees were regularly deducted from Sneddon’s worker’s compensation payments.

Electorate office staff are apparently expected to endure whatever comes their way from politicians, who account to no one for the way they treat their staff. So while Nathan Rees celebrates his ascension to the NSW Premiership, his former colleague Gillian Sneddon waits for some compensation for her wrecked life.

Peter Fray

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