Attorney-General George Brandis’ recently introduced anti-terror laws would jail journalists and whistleblowers for 10 years for revealing certain types of covert operations, called Special Intelligence Operations. Will the new draconian penalties prevent people from coming forward with information that could be in the public interest?
To find out, Crikey spoke to some prominent whistleblowers and asked: would you have spoken out today?
Rod St George, former manager of OH&S at the Manus Island asylum seeker detention centre, spoke to SBS’ Dateline in 2013 and revealed instances of rape, sexual abuse and self-harm at the centre:
“Certainly [I would again]! And I continued to make a noise about the inhumane conditions on Manus in the months after the Dateline documentary aired. I was frequently warned of the personal cost in breaching my confidentiality deeds, but isn’t that a rather shallow excuse for not speaking out? What about the cost to those who have no voice?
“In most cases, whether the issue is one of national security or workplace safety or embezzlement of public monies, one must weigh the cost of doing and saying nothing, over against the greater reward to all by doing something.
“My response is purely ethical. For me to abandon my own sense of right and wrong in deference to an authority — written, political or judicial — would be a breach of my own moral judgment. You have heard the words of Polonius, ‘To thine own self be true’. This is easier for some than it is for others. I have a deep conviction that any government or corporate body that affects the life of people should be accountable. The problem is that governments are increasingly unaccountable, less and less transparent, and even less able to act morally. How then can the general public hold such bodies to account when they have no idea what those entities are doing?”
Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie resigned in protest from the Office of National Assessments in March 2003 over the upcoming invasion of Iraq. Speaking from his experience as a senior intelligence officer, he warned that Iraq posed no security threat to any other country and that Australia was joining the war on questionable grounds:
“Yes, I would blow the whistle, because the government misconduct I was concerned with was so serious that I could do nothing else. Regardless of the law, I would do it all again.”
Martin Appleby, an ex-guard at the Manus Island detention centre, told Guardian Australia in April 2014 that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had told asylum seekers that they would never reach Australia, which sparked the Manus riots. He also detailed “inadequate” training for guards and horrific conditions for asylum seekers:
“When I was considering speaking out, I first sought legal advice to see if I was disclosing any information that was not already in the public domain. The advice I was given under the laws back then was that I was not misappropriating information that was not on public record; there were already reports drafted up about the conditions on Manus. The knowledge I disclosed was already in the public domain.
“Whilst I was called the first to speak out, the reports had been drafted but the marketplace wasn’t aware of them yet. My speaking out made people start to look.
“The question that worries me is: would this current government classify Manus or Naru as a special intelligence op? Who determines this level of secrecy? What acts do they get their criteria from? It would be very easy to mark Manus as an ASIO intelligence operation given their concerns over people smuggling, or the people who perpetrate people smuggling. And using that link, Manus could easily become an ASIO investigation.
“If Manus was determined like that, I would have seriously questioned my actions.”
Deborah Locke, a former NSW Police detective, released a book in 2003 that detailed corruption in the NSW Police force and led to the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service:
“It was a different world when I blew the whistle. I did not even know what I was doing until the deputy Commissioner of Police told me what I was. I had never heard the term whistleblower before. My life was put in danger for a long time for what I did. I thought I was just doing the right thing, to tell the truth and point out a corruption problem. In fact it was a police directive that if you saw corruption then you were also guilty if it wasn’t reported. What was in the rule book and what was general practice were two very different things.
“The end result was a heavy toll on my family. I went into labour in the witness box at the royal commission at 26 weeks pregnant. After six days in the box, the NSW Police were still arguing that they were not corrupt and questioning my credibility even though they knew about all the film footage the royal commission had of police criminal conduct. My son was born and was on life support for three months. He had brain bleeds and is now severely disabled.
“This is the legacy of my whistleblowing. Would I do it again? Yes, of course I would. However I am older and wiser now and would do it anonymously. They still have a habit of ‘shooting the messenger.’”
Former Defence subcontractor Brendan Jones exposed intellectual property theft by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation:
“Our national whistleblowing laws — the Public Interest Disclosure Act — is a farce. Whistleblower Dr Kim Sawyer calls them ‘Good Citizen Elimination laws’, because they trick people into coming forward so they can be isolated, bullied and silenced.
“The media is not the public interest safety valve people think it is. Most whistleblowers find the media will not run their story. Even when they do, usually nothing happens. For example, even though Crikey reported the intellectual property thefts by Defence last year, the AFP, the ACLEI (the AFP watchdog) and the Abbott cabinet simply ignored it.
“Personal ethics motivates people to blow the whistle, but there’s no point unless it leads to change.
“Take Freya Newman [who revealed Tony Abbott’s daughter Frances had received a secret scholarship to the Whitehouse Institute of Design]. She has risked going to jail, and her life will never again be the same. She may find it hard to get a job; who wants to work alongside a whistleblower? And for what? No investigation has been launched into Whitehouse or Tony Abbott. In fact, Abbott’s approval ratings have increased.
“My advice for whistleblowers is: don’t do it. Whistleblowers suffer stress, bullying, family breakdowns, financial loss, and risk going to prison. It’s unlikely to fix the problem anyway, and it will destroy your life and your career. Why do it?
“Allan Kessing, Mick Skrijel, Brian Hood, Toni Hoffman and Dr Lynette Downe all suffered terribly at the hands of the government. The public greatly benefits from whistleblowers, but takes no interest in their abuse. Indeed, they sanction it, by voting the same parties that abuse them back into power.
“I ask whistleblowers: why sacrifice yourself for a public who will do nothing to protect you?”