Exemptions from new whistleblowing laws could give Australia's intelligence agencies “a 007 licence to kill” approach, according to one of the nation's leading public sector corruption experts.
And excluding the federal politicians from the legislation is “unjustifiable,” claims the University of Canberra's Howard Whitton.
Mr Whitton believes the laws, which are being considered by a parliamentary committee, are too focused on secrecy and not concerned enough with the potential for wrongdoing among secret agents.
The academic is also worried that ordinary workers who try to expose corruption will need a “lawyer at their elbow” to meet all the complex legal tests contained in the legislation to gain protection as a bona fide whistleblower.
The laws, which languished for nearly four years before being introduced in March, are due to become operational on July 1 and now two parliamentary committees are examining "consequential amendments" aimed at fine-tuning the protections for public-sector whistleblowers.
But in his submission to the committees, Mr Whitton says that bill is “lacking in clarity on many matters, inadequate in scope, and variously at odds with its stated objectives”.
“It is likely that most intending whistleblowers will need a lawyer at their elbow to understand the many procedural steps required for a disclosure to be granted 'protection'.”
Mr Whitton is the founding Associate at the University of Canberra's National Institute for Governance and a member of the national committee on the National Anti-Corruption Plan.
He said the bill's authors could have examined state-based legislation - some of which had been on the books for decades - which he believed were superior to the versions now before parliament.
“Overall, the bill's excessively complicated processes and inadequate definitions fail to respond to real-world issues which other Australian jurisdictions' whistleblower protection laws – notably those of New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland – resolved satisfactorily almost two decades ago,” he wrote.
Mr Whitton is concerned that the bill does not seem to entertain the possibility that members of intelligence agencies could engage in wrongdoing.
“The current bill is excessively focused on claimed secrecy concerns, especially in relation to Intelligence matters, and inadequately concerned with encouraging the principled disclosure of 'wrongdoing' by Australian public officials involved in security and intelligence functions at all levels,” he wrote.
“The bill appears not to contemplate the possibility that an intelligence activity by an Australian intelligence operative might involve otherwise disclosable official misconduct, corruption, criminal conduct, or other illegality.
“If this is intended as a '007 – licence to kill' approach, it is my submission that this is sorely misconceived.
Mr Whitton also believes that federal members of parliament should be covered by the disclosure legislation.
“The omission of elected officials, especially members of parliament, from the coverage of the bill is wholly unjustifiable, especially when MPs have been covered by similar state and territory legislation for two decades without difficulty,” he wrote.
Mr Whitton cites the jailing of former Queensland minister for health Gordon Nuttall, and the allegations against former NSW ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald to support his case.
“There are numerous other examples over the past two decades alone to serve as reminders that corruption involving MPs is, sadly, far from unthinkable,” he wrote.