A new group of prominent ex-judges and anti-corruption experts has warned that national security is being used to clamp down on whistleblowers and journalists on an unprecedented scale.
The newly-formed Centre for Public Integrity has brought together a powerful collection of former judges, lawyers, and integrity experts to push for a strong federal anti-corruption body, champion donations and lobbying reform, and protect Australia’s various accountability institutions, including the media.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, the centre’s chair, former New South Wales court of appeal judge Anthony Whealy, said one of its chief concerns was preventing the restriction of public interest journalism in the name of national security.
The freedoms of whistleblowers and the media have come under attack in a series of recent prosecutions – including of Witness K, Bernard Collaery, Richard Boyle and David McBride – and through police raids on the ABC and the Canberra home of News Corp reporter Annika Smethurst.
Whealy said he had never seen such a concerted pursuit of whistleblowers and journalists in Australia.
He also feared national security would be used to justify mounting prosecutions in secret – a prospect he said would offend principles of open justice and discourage public interest reporting.
“Just as we see with the Bernard Collaery and Witness K trial, where national security is being raised as a reason for shrouding the proceedings in secrecy, I would suspect that if any proceedings are brought against the ABC and Annika Smethurst, that they would then be subject of national security orders to try and stop any proceedings in the public arena,” Whealy said.
“First of all that would offend the principle of open justice. It would also be unfairly using a label – ‘national security’ – to stifle public information with a view to deterring whistleblowers and journalists from coming forward again.”
Australia’s approach to whistleblowing is at odds with other western democracies. The United States, for example, rewards whistleblowers for coming forward. Labor promised a whistleblower rewards scheme if elected, a proposal the Coalition labelled “wacky”.
Instead, Australia prosecutes whistleblowers such as Richard Boyle, the tax office employee who revealed aggressive approaches to debt collection that were driving small business owners to the brink.
Whealy said the legal protections had failed to adjust to shifting community perceptions of whistleblowers. “The public feeling is very different now. I think the community as a whole would regard genuine whistleblowers as worth paying money to, as they do overseas,” he said.
“So why is the government – suddenly it seems – giving instructions to the police to investigate whistleblowers in areas where the public interest seems to demand the public know what the whistleblower wants to talk about?”
The Centre for Public Integrity includes former judges Tony Fitzgerald, David Ipp, and Stephen Charles. It also features highly respected law academic Prof George Williams, integrity and electoral authority Prof Joo-Cheong Tham, and former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption Geoffrey Watson.
In a statement launching the centre this month, Charles, a former Victorian court of appeal judge, said this year’s election had provided “ample evidence of the power of money in our political system”.
“Reform of our political finance and lobbying regulations is urgently needed to stop the undue influence of those with money to spend on donations and campaigns,” he said.
“There is currently no agency that can effectively investigate corruption allegations in federal politics and public service. A national integrity commission with strong powers and the ability to hold public hearings is crucial to restoring public trust.”