Public Disclosure Bill will maintain culture of good governance in our Public Service


sj_parliament0.jpgI am very pleased to be speaking on this important piece of legislation. I am also very pleased to be following the member for Banks in this debate, who brings to the debate and the subject matter decades of experience as a parliamentarian and, before that, years of experience at the criminal bar. The contributions that he makes must be listened to.

Of course, the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2013 does not stand alone. It is part of a package of reforms that have been introduced by the government since winning office in 2007 which go to the issues of integrity and disclosure. I reference the reforms to the freedom of information provisions within this country, which put in place for the first time a presumption in favour of disclosure, and the abolition of the rorts that were occurring under the previous government such as the use of conclusive certificates, which were used as a device—if not a vice—to ensure that documents and information that should properly be provided to the public on request were prohibited. In equal measure the reforms that this government has put in place in the area of lobbying and lobbyists, to ensure there is greater transparency and greater regulation in this area, also take up public integrity measures, which is a great step forward in ensuring that there is a register of lobbyists for those who come to this place seeking to influence parliamentarians. In addition to that, there are prohibitions on ministerial staff engaging in lobbyist work for a period of time after they leave their ministerial employment.

The legislation before the House today is about whistleblowers, and it is very welcome. For our public servants, this protection for those making an authorised disclosure in the public interest has been a long time coming—some say too long, and I will join them. Every state and territory in Australia, as well as in a whole range of overseas jurisdictions, has legislation that provides protections for whistleblowers. I hope that the Commonwealth jurisdiction will soon join them. My own advocacy for these measures commenced before I came to parliament when I was the national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, the union that provides representation to the men and women who work in the public sector and in public sector entities. The CPSU has long supported the development of legislation to put in place a process to protect public interest disclosures. I am sure the union will join with me in welcoming the fact that this bill is being debated in the House today.

The Public Interest Disclosure Bill will ensure that there are appropriate processes in place and protections offered to facilitate the disclosure of wrongdoing, misconduct and corruption. A key objective of the scheme will be to foster and promote a culture in the Australian public sector which supports speaking out in the face of wrongdoing and maladministration. The whistleblower legislation will facilitate reporting and will provide for investigation of serious wrongdoing in the public sector. It will protect whistleblowers who make disclosures in accordance with the scheme. The scheme will provide protections to whistleblowers who make disclosures directly to the media, either following an internal disclosure where the relevant criteria have been satisfied or, in a much rarer occasion, where the discloser believes there is an imminent danger to public safety which justifies direct disclosure without prior internal investigation within government.

In developing this framework the government has built upon the foundations of the February 2009 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report of the inquiry into whistleblowing protection within the Australian government public sector. The government's detailed response to that report was also known as the Dreyfus report. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work put into this policy area over many years by the now Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Of course, he was not alone. Before him, and in the other place, Senator the Hon. John Faulkner also dedicated his time and expertise towards developing and advocating for a solid policy framework in this important area.

The government and the parliament, through committees, have also had the benefit of the expertise of Australia's leading experts in this area, including Dr AJ Brown of Griffith University. The three-year research project led by Dr Brown has been an important reference point for the parliament seeking to ensure that best-practice legislation was put forward. In his report Whistling while they work, Dr Brown and his colleagues conducted research across thousands of workplaces by means of survey work and direct interviews and held their own seminars and produced discussion papers. That work has been invaluable to this policy process. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Dr AJ Brown and his colleagues.

Parliamentarians in this place have known for some time that whistleblowers need a better framework of protection. Over the past 19 years there have been numerous reviews and attempts made to introduce this type of legislation at the Commonwealth level. This work started with the 1994 report of the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, which was entitled In the public interest. Legislation to give effect to that Senate work ended with the election in March 1996 of a coalition government. Very limited protection was introduced in the Public Service Bill that was then introduced in 1997; indeed, many commentators described it is the weakest protection framework for whistleblowers anywhere in the Commonwealth. This limited protection came into force in 1999 and is still there in section 19 of the Public Service Act. In the interim, many private members' bills were put forward, including by Senator Andrew Murray, the former senator from Western Australia, in 2001, 2002 and 2007. Regrettably, those bills never enjoyed support from the coalition government at the time; each of the three bills proposed by Senator Murray had lapsed.

Upon election to government in 2007, Labor once again took this matter up. While it has taken longer than expected to get here, we now have before the parliament best-practice legislation that will apply broadly across the entire Commonwealth public sector. I am confident that given this history, which created many quasi-experts in this era and in earlier parliaments, the bill achieves the goals of those who believe that the public sector is stronger if corruption and maladministration is exposed or if there is the potential for exposure of corruption and maladministration. We enjoy a very robust Commonwealth Public Service which is free from the sorts of maladministration and corruption that are often typified in other places. Nothing in what I have said today should be taken as casting aspersions upon those men and women who work in the Australian Public Service.

The bill contains a broad range of conduct that constitutes disclosable conduct for the purpose of the scheme that is put forward. This conduct is set out in subclause 29(1) of the bill. It includes conduct that contravenes a law of the Commonwealth, a state or a territory; conduct that contravenes a law of a foreign country which is applicable to the agency, public official or service provider; conduct that perverts, or is engaged in for the purpose of perverting or attempting to pervert, the course of justice, or conduct engaged in for the purpose of corruption of any other kind; conduct that constitutes maladministration, including conduct that is based in part on improper motives, is unreasonable, unjust, repressive or negligent; conduct that is an abuse of public trust; conduct that constitutes scientific misconduct as described in item 6 of the table; conduct that results in a wastage of public money or public property; conduct that unreasonably results in a danger to the health or safety of one or more persons or is unreasonably likely to increase the risk of such danger; conduct that results in, or increases, a risk of danger to the environment; and other conduct as prescribed in the Public Interest Disclosure rules. Deputy Speaker, you can see the scope of the legislation. The proposed legislation is very broad indeed.

Why is the bill important? Quite simply, the bill is important because it is a critical plank in ensuring that our Australian Public Service maintains a culture of openness, a culture of transparency and a culture of good governance. We put great trust in our public institutions and in our public servants. Nothing is of greater importance than that public administration is carried out in a way that is free from maladministration and corruption. We expect the very highest of ethical standards as is set out in the APS Values. In regard to the Public Service, there have been three key objectives of this government: firstly, to rebuild trust and the accountability of ministers and their staff; secondly, to uphold the Westminster tradition of public service independence and neutrality; and, thirdly, to deliver a more open and responsible government committed to serving the public interest. In that vein, the new Australian Public Service Values have just been released by the Attorney-General this week.

This government came to office in 2007 committed to rebuilding the integrity of government and the Australian Public Service. I believe that our commitment to greater protection of public servants will be met in the reforms before the House today. We are nearing the end of a parliamentary sitting. I am very hopeful that this important legislation passes through this House with support from all sides of politics. I am also very hopeful that in the time available to those in the other place they have the opportunity to consider and pass this bill into legislation. Nothing can be more important to the confidence of the Australian public in our public institutions than that we complement the already existing measures, which are built around ensuring that we have a framework for integrity and disclosure, with the measures before the House today.

I commend the legislation to the House.

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