Public Interest Disclosure Bill

Second Reading

The Hon. V.A. CHAPMAN (Bragg—Deputy Premier, Attorney-General) (15:40): Today, I introduce the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2018. This bill, coupled with the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (Investigation Powers) Amendment Bill and the Evidence (Journalists) Amendment Bill are important parts of the Marshall Liberal government's transparency and accountability agenda that prioritise open and public hearings in maladministration matters and protect journalists from disclosing their sources in the public interest.

In accordance with the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s recommendation following a review of the effectiveness of the Whistleblower Protection Act 1993, this bill will repeal that act and replace it with a scheme more in line with contemporary attitudes about disclosure of wrongdoing in public administration and in recognition of the existence of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption and the Office of Public Integrity.

This bill has had a chequered history. By way of brief background, the Whistleblowers Protection Act has been in operation for some 20 years. However, since its inception there has been little recourse to its protection. In March 2013, the then attorney-general requested that the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption review the legislation and, after extensive consultation, the commissioner prepared a report for parliament in 2014. The commissioner made 30 recommendations supporting a rewrite of the law.

In the commissioner's annual report of 2015, a survey of 7,000 public servants revealed that one in four was reluctant to report corruption, misconduct or maladministration, with the most common concern being personal repercussions and their job. Meanwhile, the State Ombudsman conducted a review of the freedom of information laws, with a report on the same tabled in apartment in June 2014. This report highlighted the need for protection of FOI officers against ministerial interference. Notably, both reports recommending substantial reform appeared after the 2014 state election.

In the absence of any reform from the tired and arrogant Labor government, the Liberal opposition prepared a bill to provide for offences for victimisation and the right to MPs and the media after certain time limits—following the recommendations made by the commissioner in 2014. The former Labor government, in an attempt to save face and after nearly two years of refusing to provide any reform to whistleblower laws, introduced a bill which cherrypicked the parts of the ICAC report without providing any true substantive whistleblower protection reform.

And then there was a deadlock throughout 2017 because the former government refused to protect whistleblowers in their own bill of the same name as this one I am introducing today. Those in another place saw merit in the substantial amendment. The then government refused to listen. The Marshall Liberal government has fiercely maintained the need for whistleblowers to be protected, especially disclosing matters of public importance, including maladministration and corruption, to journalists.

We on this side of the house recognise the important role of the media in fostering critical public debate and holding the institutions of government accountable. With this bill, misconduct across government can now be publicly exposed, something the former government were vehemently opposed to.

Turning to the key aspects of this bill, its purpose is to:

  • facilitate disclosures about public administration information by public officers or former public officers;
  • ensure that public disclosures are properly assessed and, where necessary, investigated and actioned; and
  • ensure that a public officer making a disclosure is protected against reprisals.

The bill also provides protection for disclosures by members of the public about a wrongdoing in the private or public sector where the information is disclosed to an appropriate recipient and the information relates to a substantial risk to public health or safety and the environment. In order for a disclosure to be protected, the person must believe on reasonable grounds that the information is true or believe on reasonable grounds that the information may be true and is of sufficient significance to justify its disclosure. A person who makes an appropriate disclosure is not subject to any liability as a result of that disclosure.

Further, the bill imposes a duty on the person who receives an appropriate disclosure to take action in relation to the disclosure and take reasonable steps to keep the informant advised of the action or the outcome of any investigation. Importantly, the bill allows a disclosure to be made to a member of parliament or a journalist where a person has made a disclosure in accordance with the requirements under the bill and either does not receive notification within 30 days that an assessment has been made or does not receive notification with 120 days or longer, as specified in a written notice to the disclosure, of the outcome of the assessment.

This was a key recommendation from the ICAC report, which the former government failed to legislate for and simply refused to consider. The bill defines 'journalist' as a person engaged in the profession or occupation of journalism in connection with the publication of information in a news medium. 'News medium' is defined as a medium for the dissemination to the public, or a section of the public, of news and observations of news. The definition is based on the definition in the New South Wales Evidence Act 1995 and is consistent with the approach in the Victorian Evidence Act 2008. This definition also aligns with that in the shield laws bill introduced in this house last week.

The definition is intended to be narrow and to capture disclosures by professional journalists only. Flexibility is built into the bill to allow for development in modes of communication by allowing for regulations to specify classes of person who are deemed to be included in, or excluded from, the definition. This is an appropriate balance between the risk of defining too widely and not recognising the development of new forms of communication in public communication.

The government and the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption consider that the ability to make an appropriate disclosure to a journalist is critical to ensuring that there is an effective, transparent scheme and that the public can be assured that information will be dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner. It is a safeguard against secrecy and complacency in addressing matters of serious or systemic maladministration and misconduct in public administration.

Let me say again that this bill demonstrates the Marshall Liberal government's commitment to accountability and transparency in public administration. For 16 long years under the former Labor administration, public servants, employees and members of the public were reluctant and afraid to speak out against possible maladministration and corruption. My colleagues and I are very pleased to say that that should no longer be the case with the election of a new government and with the introduction of this bill.

I wish to commend the work of my colleagues in the other place and their tireless efforts to pass important Liberal amendments, compared to the former government's meagre attempt at this legislation previously. I personally thank you, Mr Speaker, for your work and advocacy in this important area in a number of years since you were elected as the member for Hartley, and I am sure that you will continue to follow this debate with interest. I also thank members of the crossbench for their support for provisions to provide whistleblowers with protection in that same legislation in 2016, and I look forward to working with them again to pass this bill swiftly.

I would again call upon the opposition. The new Leader of the Opposition has said that he has been listening and that he will review his team's approach to this type of legislation. I hope that he recognises the significance of not only the legislation but the continued plea of the public for transparency in government and the responsibility we all have to ensure that those in the public sector are not layered with legislative responsibility and obligation, yet are left unprotected to carry out those responsibilities and exposed to reprisals or disadvantage to themselves.

That is the significance of this legislation. I urge members to read it carefully and to consider the bill favourably. I now table an explanation of clauses.

Debate adjourned on motion of Mr Mullighan.