A majority of Australians want more legal protections for public servants to act as whistleblowers, new research shows, as the federal government signals its preparing changes to the laws.
Assistant attorney general Amanda Stoker told the National Whistleblowing Symposium last week the federal government was preparing to amend the Public Interest Disclosure Act to better protect those in the public sector.
The reforms are due to bolster support for public servants to access legal advice, better protect witnesses, and clarify protection to former public officials, among other changes.
But the government will not commit to making the reforms before the election, Stoker said.
According to think tank the Australia Institute and the Human Rights Law Centre, 71% of Australians want whistleblower protections strengthened for public servants.
Three-quarters of those surveyed also believed whistleblowers make Australia a better place, while 61% say whistleblowing strengthens national security and the nation’s system of government.
Bill Browne, a senior researcher at the Australia Institute, said while the research showed a vast number of Australians supported more legal protections for whistleblowers, the government had “sat on” 2016 recommendations to improve legislation.
“Whistleblowers show great courage and strength of character to expose government misconduct and wrongdoing,” Browne said.
“Along with police raids on journalists and news organisations, the Government’s prosecution of whistleblowers shows a callous disregard for accountable government and freedom of speech.”
The research found half of Australians did not believe that Bernard Collaery should be jailed for his alleged role in exposing Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste cabinet offices, while 24% of people disagreed.
Separate research from Griffith University revealed last week that half of all public interest whistleblowers who experienced serious repercussions for speaking out received no remedies.
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said it was “unconscionable” that the government had not reformed the laws.
“Whistleblowers deserved to be protected, not punished – and our laws should reflect that,” he said.
“This Government should commit to reforming the Public Interest Disclosure Act – as it has promised – before the next election.”
The survey showed half of Australians believed the federal government was ‘too secretive’ in dealing with corruption allegations, while 26% said it was ‘about right’, 11% stated it was ‘too open’.
Pender said, without reform, the question of what the public didn’t know because the consequences of speaking up were too great was troubling.
“Whistleblowers are suffering. They are losing their jobs, being mistreated and, in some cases, even face jail for doing the right thing,” he said.