Australia's intelligence agencies should no longer be exempt from whistleblower protections designed to improve public scrutiny of government spending, a legal advocacy group has said.
Whistleblowing laws, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, were first introduced in 2013 to promote integrity and accountability in the public sector but the nation's intelligence agencies have had a blanket exemption from it for the past eight years.
Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said it was time for the rug to be pulled from under the secretive agencies.
"Intelligence agencies have extraordinary powers and receive billions of dollars in funding each year. Like every aspect of our government, they must be subject to appropriate checks and balances," Mr Pender said.
"The PID Act was established to promote transparency and accountability but the law's core purpose is being undermined by this wholesale ban on intelligence whistleblowers speaking publicly."
Seven of the nation's intelligence agencies, which employ at least 2200 employees, will be given at least $2.4 billion, or 0.36 per cent, of the 2020-21 federal budget.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation will receive an estimated $591 million with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service being given $630 million.
The Australian Signals Directorate will get a little more than a billion while the Office of National Intelligence will receive $147 million.
The two Defence Intelligence Agencies do not publicly report how much of the budget they receive.
Mr Pender said the laws that prevented intelligence agency employees from publicly revealing any wrongdoings needed reform.
"No matter how awful the conduct, and no matter how compelling the public interest in it being exposed, the PID Act says no," Mr Pender said.
"Intelligence whistleblowers are only allowed to make disclosures within their own agency, or to the Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security [IGIS]; there is no mechanism for the person to ever make the information public."
The November 2020 release of the long-awaited Brereton report revealed there was "credible information" Australian defence forces had unlawfully murdered 39 people in Afghanistan during the investigation's scope between 2005 and 2016.
The four-year investigation was launched after former Army lawyer and officer David McBride made internal allegations of war crimes by defence personnel before leaking that information to the ABC, which subsequently published reports on it.
Mr McBride is now awaiting trial for five charges relating to the release of that information to the media.
Mr Pender said these were just some of the examples behind why the laws need to be changed.
"In recent years, Australian whistleblowers have exposed murder and potential war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and our government's bugging of Timor-Leste's cabinet to cheat our desperately poor neighbour out of their oil and gas revenue," Mr Pender said.
"The courageous individuals who exposed this wrongdoing are now facing prison.
"A law that tries to keep shocking abuses a secret and imprisons the people who expose them is a law that clearly needs to change."
A review into the legislation was undertaken by Philip Moss and publicly released in October 2016. It recommended changes to strengthen protections and support for disclosers as well simplifying the process.
It, however, maintained disclosures containing sensitive intelligence information be directed to IGIS and remain exempt from public disclosures.
The government provided its response in December 2020, more than four years after the findings were first delivered, agreeing to the majority of the review's 33 recommendations. Its response added it will look to reform the laws further in light of experience in the years since the review was received.
Mr Pender said it was important, especially given recent developments relating to the Brereton report, that consideration be given to whistleblowers who bring to light important information.
"The Morrison government has said it will look at changes to the PID Act this year," Mr Pender said.
"The law must be amended to ensure a safe pathway to public disclosure for these kinds of abuses when internal channels prove to be inadequate."