Lawyer Bernard Collaery (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Secret trials and the persecution of whistleblowers have been a defining part of Christian Porter’s time as attorney-general. They have also been extremely expensive.

With the portfolio now up for grabs it’s worth asking: will the government reconsider its relentless pursuit of public servants and other whistleblowers standing up for what’s right?

There are positive signs that the government could abandon its criminal prosecution of Richard Boyle, who called out heavy-handed debt collection tactics inside the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).

The prosecution of Boyle has had a chilling effect on whistleblowers, who have little protections in the public sector. The Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutors has said it would consider dropping the remaining charges against Boyle, which had originally threatened to send him to jail for the rest of his life. It said it would make a decision by this Wednesday.

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If it does drop the case, it’s likely it will be because the ATO botched the case. Nonetheless, it would be a chance for Australia to shake off its reputation as a secretive state that does not tolerate dissent.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But there’s another reason why the government might not want to get bogged down in endless criminal cases.

Aside from the fact that prosecuting whistleblowers is wrong, it’s also a massive drain on the public purse — and there’s no transparency over what taxpayers are paying for.

Crikey has managed to get a little insight into the cost of one of the most confounding criminal prosecutions being pursued by the government.

The Attorney-General’s Department revealed the total spend on lawyers in the criminal prosecution of barrister Bernard Collaery and his client, intelligence officer Witness K, over their role in exposing Australia’s bugging of ally Timor-Leste during oil and gas negotiations, has risen to $3.4 million. That’s an increase of $305,000 from just five months earlier (a figure around $3 million emerged during budget estimates in October).

But these figures are a fraction of the total cost of running a decade-long prosecution involving countless public servants conducting investigations across multiple departments.

Then there’s the case against former military lawyer David McBride, who is being prosecuted for handing over a trove of internal defence documents to the ABC as part of an exposé on war crimes. For this case the government has enlisted private barristers as well as dozens of in-house solicitors and public servants to mount a complex national security trial. The Attorney-General’s Department did not give a figure on McBride’s trial.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick has been trying to find out exactly how much the government has spent on its litany of secret trials and whistleblower prosecutions, and is asking agencies to provide details about the costs of their prosecutions as part of Senate estimates.

The answer is even more important as we look set to get a new attorney-general.