A photo of Chinese doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang, who died from COVID-19 in February after alerting the public about the dangers of the disease (Image: AP/Kin Cheung)

Never, in most of our lifetimes, has trust in our institutions been thrown into such sharp relief as in this time of COVID-19. By a hair’s breadth, Australia’s decision-making has hopefully saved it from the type of calamity engulfing the US and the United Kingdom.

But we have to remember this is thanks to our recognition of the rights and duties of people to do their job, by speaking up about critical issues, even when it might make them unpopular.

In Australia, it was everyday health professionals and university-based experts who first alerted and motivated us, as a community, on the need to get serious about our response. Get out of the pubs and restaurants. Cancel the bloody football. Just in time.

It was the state medical officers and premiers who got it through to our federal decision-makers, right up to the prime minister himself, that we had to ramp things up. Again, just in time.

Internationally, and in Australia, health workers and officials continue to speak up about problems in the response, critical to making it better.

Ever since public outrage in China over official efforts to silence Dr Li Wenliang in December 2019, the centrality of whistleblowers to ensuring the right responses to COVID-19 has been clear.

Over the last two weeks, more than 70 organisations and experts worldwide have leant their voice to a call on governments to Make Whistleblowing Safe During COVID-19 and Beyond.

The open letter was initiated by The Good Lobby in Italy and Fibgar in Spain — community groups in two countries badly hit by the pandemic — and was backed by Transparency International and the Whistleblowing International Network.

It calls on “all public authorities and institutions to protect those who report or expose the harms, abuses and serious wrongdoing” during the COVID-19 crisis — and afterwards.

Whistleblowing, the freedom to speak up, and respecting the media’s duty to amplify the voices of those who reveal information in the public interest, all go together.

But as we consider our next responses to COVID-19, including technological ones like the proposed contract tracing app, we have to recognise where weaknesses in our institutions mean we are still correct to suspend our trust — until government can show it is truly deserved.

Poor reactions to whistleblowers, and curtailments in press freedom are not limited to countries like China.

It is ironic that this week we are debating whether we can trust government with the information that would be gathered by a contact tracing app, when last week the High Court found the Australian Federal Police had not even competently prepared a search warrant for its raid last year on the home of political journalist Annika Smethurst.

Behind that raid, and the criminal investigation into both Smethurst and unrelated journalism by the ABC, lies the fact that the reporters were prepared to use official information leaked by whistleblowers.

It’s only more ironic, as we debate the contact tracing app, that Smethurst’s story was about secret plans to extend powers to conduct domestic surveillance over Australian citizens, by our federal spy agency, the ASD.

The whistleblowers themselves are being prosecuted as well — despite being correct, and despite the evidence that what they disclosed was in the public interest.

Yet even as the COVID crisis confirms the importance of whistleblowing and press freedom like never before, the High Court outcome provides a crucial reminder of this other reality — in Australia, the legal protections we assume are in place for public interest journalism, and for federal whistleblowers themselves, remain either missing or a substantial mess.

Ideally, we should be able to trust our decision-makers with the information they need to best manage a crisis like COVID-19. Especially when, by a mixture of luck and design, they have hopefully helped us dodge a bullet.

But the fear that we can’t trust them yet is not irrational. It’s based on genuine reasons and well-known problems.

When we fix some of those problems, perhaps we’ll be able to trust government at that higher level it would so like, and which it may even then deserve.

A.J. Brown is professor of public policy and law in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, and a boardmember of Transparency International. His 2019 Henry Parkes Oration, Safeguarding our Democracy: Whistleblower Protection after the Australian Federal Police Raids can be found here.

Peter Fray

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