Rex Patrick
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick (Image: AAP /David Mariuz)

Rex Patrick is having something of a moment. Last month’s federal election made the Centre Alliance senator from South Australia a crossbench kingmaker, and his vote will be crucial if the Morrison government is to take the unusual step of getting anything done.

When the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC offices, and News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home last week, Patrick’s fierce criticism of what he called a “shameless attack on the press” put him further in the spotlight.

Patrick’s criticisms of national security agencies led to an “intimidating” phone call from Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo, who allegedly tried to silence the senator (Pezzullo denies this suggestion). Such stoushes aren’t new for Patrick. As the senator puts it, he’s “never shied away from upsetting the apple cart”.

From submariner to whistleblower

Long before he was in parliament, Patrick had a reputation for saying and revealing things that made powerful people uncomfortable. It’s a reputation that has influenced his strident defence of whistleblowers and transparency.  

Patrick only became a senator in 2017, replacing his old boss Nick Xenophon, who had left parliament to have an unsuccessful go in the South Australia state election. Before that, he spent a lot of time with submarines: first in the Australian navy as a system officer, then as a contractor training future submariners.

It was also submarines that first got Patrick in the crosshairs of the defence and national security establishment. In the late 2000s, Patrick started going on the record in defence publications criticising the navy’s decision to build a new fleet of submarines, arguing instead that they should buy second-hand subs from Europe.

Patrick says his comments were not received well among the government and the navy, who wanted the new subs built. He claims the navy then conspired to muzzle him: first trying to insert a clause to his contract restricting him from making public comment, before refusing to renew it altogether. Patrick’s response was to request discussions about his contract under Freedom of Information laws. 

“They immediately knew I wasn’t going to be bullied,” Patrick told Crikey.

Then, in 2016, The Australian revealed that DCNS (now called Naval Group), the French company building Australia’s new submarine fleet, had suffered a massive data breach. Documents detailing the design and defence capabilities of an Indian fleet it was building were stolen from the group’s offices. Patrick knew of the leak in 2013 but, when he raised his concerns with Defence, he was ignored. That ultimately led him to leak details of the breach to the media.

Patrick was lucky — when it came out that he revealed the data breach, his boss Xenophon backed him all the way.

“It is difficult for people to stand up and do those sorts of things,” Patrick said. “I was fortunate that I worked with Nick [Xenophon] … he was 100% onside with me.”

But others have been less fortunate. Richard Boyle, who disclosed abuses of power by the Australian Taxation Office now faces 161 years in prison. Witness K, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery face a highly secretive prosecution for revealing Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste’s embassy.

It’s Patrick’s own experience that colours his support for people like Witness K and Boyle, who he says are “heroes”. Most people who take the often thankless step to release information do so with utmost care and do so out of a genuine desire to improve the functioning of democracy, rather than compromise national security.

“I’d argue that there are editors in this country, who are just as patriotic as people who serve in the defence force, or intelligence services,” Patrick said.

What can Patrick do in the Senate?

Patrick says improving transparency — reforming FOI laws and improving protections for whistleblowers and journalists is one of his priorities in the Senate. But he has obstacles coming at him from both sides of politics.

Canberra’s war on whistleblowers and information is bipartisan, the product of decades of co-operation between major parties to expand the national security state. It’s hard not to see the government’s (and Labor’s) newfound concern for press freedom post-raids as a disingenuous response to the news cycle.

Patrick believes that the structural realities of major parties make it difficult for politicians to agitate around transparency issues. Politicians are forced to toe the party line, and are too concerned with the cost to their political careers to agitate for a winding back of national security laws. By contrast, Patrick says Centre Alliance is smaller, and therefore better able to push an agenda on these issues.

“One of the benefits of a smaller party is we’re not a party of government. We’re there as protectors who weigh into issues where others are silent.”

But Centre Alliance’s size comes with an obvious drawback: making actual change in sensitive areas will be hard. Patrick already points to some initial victories. Last year, the government passed a suite of laws beefing up protections for corporate whistleblowers. Patrick told Crikey he has received an undertaking from the government to introduce an equal whistleblower protection regime in the public sector and, with luck, there could be reform in the next three years.

That success could be incumbent on Patrick maintaining good relations with the government. Yesterday Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton weighed in to Patrick and Pezzullo’s altercation, saying he sympathised with Pezzullo’s actions and labelled Patrick as someone who might “seek to misrepresent” the substance of their conversation. But Patrick has always been comfortable ruffling feathers, and making enemies when needed. 

“If I hadn’t made a few enemies, I’d feel I wasn’t doing my job properly.”