Beyond the Call of Duty


The predicament of Allan Kessing, a former Federal public servant, is a classic example of how whistleblowers serve their community by speaking out and why they need protection from a vindictive State hell-bent on making them pay a high price.

Kessing was a member of the Customs Air Border Security Unit at Sydney Airport until his resignation in May 2005. Two years earlier, he and his colleagues had compiled a damning report for Canberra outlining serious security lapses at the airport, as well as surveillance blind spots and criminal activity.

Despite the fear of terrorism following the 9/11 attacks in the US and the resulting focus on airport security, the report did not reach senior bureaucrats and ministers and hence remained buried. That is, until Kessing leaked it to the media soon after he resigned.

This resulted in a number of front-page stories, which came amid allegations of drug trafficking by corrupt airport staff in Sydney and suspicions that Schapelle Corby’s Bali-bound baggage might have been tampered with in transit in Sydney.

Prime Minister John Howard quickly called in British international aviation security expert, Sir John Wheeler, to check out weak points at Australia’s key gateways. Wheeler reported in September 2005 that:

Intelligence material, particularly from Customs, confirmed significant threats and vulnerabilities at major airports that are consistent with the reporting by The Australian.

Wheeler’s report prompted the Federal Government to spend over $200 million boosting Customs surveillance and setting up police command centres at major airports. It was the most extensive overhaul of airport security in Australia’s history.

Kessing was totally vindicated. But a lethargic Government mugged by reality always demands a victim on whom to take out its scorn. Despite its own rhetoric, and duty, the Howard Government had been neither alert nor alarmed.

Ironically, while Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers were setting about fixing the problems exposed at Australian airports, colleagues of theirs had been put onto the scent of the whistleblower.

Kessing was tracked down, charged and, in November 2006, he was taken to court. He was found guilty in March 2007 and bailed to appear for sentencing on May 25.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The Crown Prosecutor said that a prison sentence was on the cards. The jury apparently had trouble making a decision, but was instructed by the judge not to take into consideration the public interest dimension.

Commenting on the verdict, The Australian‘s legal affairs writer, Chris Merritt, hit the nail on the head:

Punishing whistleblowers such as Allan Kessing for protecting the public interest reeks of the vengeful act of a political pygmy The politicians and bureaucrats forget that the public interest is not always aligned with the interests of the government of the day.

Recently, we heard a Federal Coalition member claim that Colonel Michael Kelly, the ALP candidate for Eden-Monaro, would not be looked upon kindly by many of the military voters in that electorate. The MP said they held in disdain whistleblowers like Kelly who broke their pledge of silence over such issues as torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and the AWB’s involvement in the oil-for-food scandal.

The point that the MP missed was that Kelly did not ‘blow the whistle’; he was simply doing his duty as an Australian officer posted to Iraq, telling the Government what it needed to know. The fact that the Government’s interests were elsewhere was a different matter entirely.

It would be interesting to hear directly from the Prime Minister what he thinks about how Colonel Kelly carried out his duty, and for that matter how Allan Kessing carried out his. With all the banter that we’re subjected to on ‘values’ and ‘standards’ during the lead-up to an election, Howard could be sure that on issues like these the broader electorate would be all ears.

While at it, the Prime Minister might also like to tell us what he thinks about the contrast between the AFP’s effectiveness in tracking down Kessing and its failure to uncover the source of the leak which provided a Melbourne Herald Sun journalist with another sensitive report in June 2003.

Compiled by Andrew Wilkie, then an analyst with the Office of National Assessments (ONA), the report on Iraq understandably had a restricted readership. Wilkie had resigned in March 2003 over the invasion of Iraq and the report was leaked in an attempt to damage his reputation.

Written and distributed within Government in December 2002, all copies of the report were duly returned to the ONA. Then, in June 2003, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s office requested a copy the only such request made in the six-month period after the return of the copies of the report to ONA. Three days later, on 23 June, a Herald Sun article entitled ‘Spook Misspoke’ appeared, which openly referred to the secret report.

The AFP’s 11-month inquiry into the leak claimed that there was ‘no direct evidence to identify any of the recipients of the report as the source of the disclosure.’ Case closed.

It all goes back to duty, and who those paid from the public purse feel they are meant to be serving.

In recent years, the currency of truth and accountability in the governance of the nation has been utterly debased, especially during Howard’s term as PM. With an election approaching, both he and Kevin Rudd are duty-bound to tell us what they’re going to do about our predicament on this front.

In pondering the matter, they might consider these words   from the American novelist, Norman Mailer:

Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries [It] is a state of grace attained only by those countries that have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom, but to undergo the heavy labour to maintain it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.