We'd Be Lost Without Whistleblowers

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Let’s hear it for the courageous men and women who are prepared to speak out when our government lies.

Whistleblowers like Rod St George, the former manager of occupational health and safety for G4S at Manus Island, who quit his job and spoke out in July 2013. St George warned that conditions on Manus were explosive, and that people would die.

Whistleblowers like Azita Bokan, the interpreter employed by the Department of Immigration and Border Security. Despite a contract that prevents here from talking to the media about conditions on Manus, Bokan spoke out about the violent attacks there this week.

“There was blood everywhere. The number injured was horrific: people with massive head injuries, at least one with a slashed throat,'' she told Fairfax’s Michael Gordon and Sarah Whyte.

Whistleblowers like the Salvation Army case manager that spoke out about a rape on Manus Island last year.

Whistleblowers like the anonymous sources that New Matilda has relied upon in recent days as we have reported the horrific violence on Manus Island. Those sources have allowed NM to report a very different story to the one spouted by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

Without these whistleblowers, the Australian public would have a much poorer understanding of conditions in our immigration gulag. That’s saying something, because we already know far too little. The level of secrecy imposed by the current government under Scott Morrison is at an all-time high. Under these conditions, the only way journalists and ordinary citizens can discover what is really going on in places like Manus Island is to rely on courageous sources inside the system coming forward.

Whistleblowers are particularly important when governments and corporations work in the shadows and seek to cover their tracks. And there’s more of that going on than ever. The Australian government, for instance, is up to its eyeballs in digital snooping, forming part of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand. Much of what we know about the recent actions of the Australian intelligence agencies – including the fact that Australia hacked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone – stems from the disclosures of US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

It takes a special kind of person to go to the media about wrong-doing, particularly in a highly politicised environment like the immigration system. Many public servants and contractors now have clauses in their employment contracts that prevent them from speaking to the media. There is also a risk of charges being laid.

As Bokan told Fairfax this morning, “I am seeking a lawyer to protect me because I know they will come after me with all that they have.”

What happens to whistleblowers after they speak out? They are often dismissed. They are generally victimised. They can be the subject of sustained workplace pressure, bullying, intimidation and harassment. The federal police can get involved. Some have been charged.

In 2009, for instance, Allan Kessing, a whistleblower in Customs who revealed shocking breaches of security at Australian airports, was found guilty of breaching Commonwealth law. He received a nine month suspended sentence.

Snowden is of course the best known whistleblower of recent times. The former National Security Agency contractor’s decision to flee the US and seek asylum in Hong Kong and then eventually in Russia may seem like the act of a traitor. But the discouraging track record of President Obama’s administration in pursuing and prosecuting whistleblowers suggests he was almost certainly correct in expecting some kind of legal retribution.

Those who blow the whistle from inside our immigration system are also at considerable risk. In 2010, Brendan Thomson, the head of the Australian Federal Police’s Christmas Island riot squad, was told the squad would be pulling out and leaving the island. At the time, Christmas Island was experiencing a flood of new arrivals. The AFP, however, wanted to play political games of its own. So the squad was pulled out. Thomson emailed the Commissioner, Tony Negus, warning him that lives would be put at risk.

Thomson was stood down and a misconduct investigation was launched. The AFP deemed him an “integrity risk”, forcing colleagues and fellow officers to take notes on every encounter with him. Two and half years later, Thomson was still on unpaid leave and had racked up $210,000 in legal costs. At one stage he was so concerned about the campaign to discredit him that he feared contraband would be planted in his locker. A Parliamentary inquiry into the Christmas Island riots later found that the withdrawal of the AFP riot squad was a contributing factor to the subsequent violence in March 2011, when much of the detention centre burned to the ground.

There is some good news. Last year, with little fanfare, Parliament passed a new whistleblower law aimed at protecting those speaking out about a broad range of issues, including corruption, mismanagement and breaches of public trust. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 protects whistleblowers from criminal charges, dismissal from their job and from reprisals within their workplace. Although yet to be tested in the courts, it’s though the act will protect a future Alan Kessing from prosecution and conviction.

The law was largely the result of the tireless campaigning of independent MP Andrew Wilkie, himself a former whistleblower who understands the consequences of speaking out. “Whistleblowers are too often left with an unbearable personal cost as they lose their jobs, their friends and family, their minds and sometimes even their lives,” he said in 2012, when introducing the bill. “It's beyond time we gave them the protection they need and deserve.”

Time will tell whether the new act will protect whistleblowers such as Azita Bokan. But there’s never been a greater need for the law. The more secretive that our government becomes, the more we will need to rely on whistleblowers and inside sources to tell us what’s really going on.

CLARIFICATION, 7 MARCH: The final bill passed into law in June 2013 was not the Private Members Bill introduced by Andrew Wilkie. It was a Government Bill, finalised by then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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