Whistleblowing is an important function of transparent and accountable government. But it has also received a lot of mixed press in recent years with coverage of the disclosures of WikiLeaks and more recently those of Edward Snowden.
Yesterday the Federal Government joined every other State and Territory with the introduction of stand-alone public interest disclosure legislation. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth) provides a comprehensive protection regime for public sector whistleblowers which will roll out over the next six months. In the overview in s 7 the dual purposes of the Act are identified as providing “… a means for protecting public officials, and former public officials, from adverse consequences of disclosing information that, in the public interest, should be disclosed” and providing for “… the investigation of matters that are disclosed.” The objects, outlined in s 6, are:
(a) to promote the integrity and accountability of the Commonwealth public sector; and
(b) to encourage and facilitate the making of public interest disclosures by public officials; and
(c) to ensure that public officials who make public interest disclosures are supported and are protected from adverse consequences relating to the disclosures; and
(d) to ensure that disclosures by public officials are properly investigated and dealt with.
The new scheme implements the Government’s response to the report on the inquiry into whistleblowing protections within the Australian Government public sector which was tabled on 25 February 2009. The inquiry was conducted by former House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs which was chaired by Mark Dreyfus MP. It's also worth mentioning that it also came good on a 2007 Labor election promise and Julia Gillard's 2010 agreement with independents Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.
FlagPost has a good overview of the key features of the scheme, but in short, a discloser can disclose alleged wrong doings by the Federal Public Service, a Federal statutory agency, Commonwealth authority, the Defence Force, a Parliamentary departments or a service provider for Commonwealth contracts. Disclosure usually must occur internally first and be made to your supervisor or the disclosure officer of your agency. Alleged wrong doings cannot include matters related to political or expenditure.
If the discloser believes that an investigation into the disclosure was inadequate they can disclose externally including to the media or a member of parliament. The only exception that allows external disclosure without first disclosing internally is where there is a substantial and imminent danger to health and safety or to the environment. This part of the scheme will be overseen by the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, which will oversee agency decisions and report on the operations of the scheme.
Where the disclosure relates to intelligence agencies external disclosure is never an option. This part of the scheme will be overseen by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.
Generally this is a good step forward but I am inclined to agree with Rob Oakeshott MP: “This Bill could have better dealt with whistleblowing against politicians and intelligence agencies.” This scheme would not have helped Snowden because he disclosed information related to national security. But it does go some of the way to ensuring whistleblowing is protected.