Public Interest Disclosure Amendment (Review) Bill 2022

"This bill delivers comprehensive reforms to the public-sector whistleblowing scheme. The bill represents the first stage of a significant package of public-sector whistleblowing reform."

Address to the Federation Chamber, Bills - Public Interest Disclosure Amendment (Review) Bill 2022

Wednesday 15 February 2023

I also rise today to speak in favour of the Public Interest Disclosure Amendment (Review) Bill 2022. In doing so, I wish to commend all those from across the parliament who are interested in improving trust and transparency in government. Long overdue reforms to the Public Interest Disclosure Act, such as those outlined in this bill, put Australia on the path to a best practice whistleblowing framework for the public sector. But we recognise that there is more work to do and we commit to working closely with stakeholders to do so after the passage of these reforms.

The formation of this framework will also support the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which will develop Australia's comprehensive approach to corruption and ensure better transparency and integrity in government. This bill will implement key recommendations of the 2016 review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act by Mr Philip Moss, also known as the Moss review, as well as subsequent recommendations of parliamentary committee reports. It's disappointing that the previous government did not value implementation of the review's recommendations.

Broadly, these recommendations can be broken down into five areas. Firstly, this bill will improve protections for public sector whistleblowers and witnesses. Secondly, under this bill the disclosure scheme will focus on addressing wrongdoing, such as fraud and corruption. Thirdly, this bill will make the scheme easier for agencies to administer. Fourthly, it will clarify the coverage of the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Finally, this bill will enhance the oversight of the scheme by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, or IGIS.

This bill will strengthen protections for public sector whistleblowers by expanding protections in the act to those who make a disclosure. It will also expand the types of detriment covered by the reprisal protections to encompass a broader range of harm that whistleblowers may suffer when reporting wrongdoing and corruption. Additionally, this bill will expand immunities for persons who witness wrongdoing to be equivalent to the immunities for whistleblowers. The Attorney-General has continually said that he has a longstanding commitment to whistleblowers, and this bill actions that commitment.

This bill will focus the disclosure scheme on significant integrity wrongdoing. Consistent with the Moss review, the bill will remove personal work related conduct from the scope of disclosable conduct under the act. However, it's important to note that this approach does not suggest that agencies should ignore other forms of wrongdoing or workplace conflict. It does, however, recognise that there are other frameworks that are better suited to dealing with such conduct, such as performance management and disciplinary conduct processes. Whistleblowers will still be able to report personal work related conduct under the Public Interest Disclosure Act if it amounts to reprisal action or if it is of such a nature that it would undermine public confidence in an agency or have other significant implications for an agency. As the Attorney-General has made clear, we need to make sure that people who see wrongdoing, maladministration or corruption can report it to their superiors, and if they don't get action then they should be able to go public with their concerns and be protected against reprisal.

That's the important thing about whistleblower protection. We need to get these laws right, because we all know it's an important part of the integrity ecosystem. It's an important part of good public service administration that people can make complaints and that the government deals with those complaints appropriately with this legislation.

This leads me onto how this bill makes the disclosure scheme easier for agencies to administer. Agencies will now be given more flexibility in how they handle disclosures. This will ensure that the conduct being disclosed is investigated under the appropriate law or power, including by the NACC. The bill will also facilitate enhanced information sharing between agencies in relation to disclosures for the removal of the general secrecy offence in the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

The Moss review identified a need to clarify the coverage of the Public Interest Disclosure Act. To achieve this, the bill will be consistent with the recommendations of the Moss review and will expressly exclude staff who are employed or engaged under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 from the scope of the public interest disclosure scheme, which will reflect the original intention of the legislation. The government supports appropriate whistleblower protections being provided to parliamentary staff and has taken the first steps in delivering this outcome through the protections provided in the NACC legislation for disclosures of corrupt conduct.

The government will also consider whether other protections are appropriate for parliamentary staff who report misconduct in the context of implementing relevant recommendations in the Set the standard report on the independent review of Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces—in particular, the establishment of the independent parliamentary standards commission.

The bill will also work on enhancing oversight of the scheme by the Ombudsman and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to ensure the administration of the scheme by agencies is effectively scrutinised. Agencies will now be required to provide a copy of every investigation report to either the ombudsman or the IGIS, as appropriate, and to respond to any recommendations that the relevant oversight agency makes in relation to the report.

Furthermore, this bill would also implement recommendations 10 and 11 of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security report on press freedom to ensure urgent disclosures in intelligence agencies reach the IGIS as soon as possible and to provide for biannual mandatory reporting of statistics on all public interest disclosures to the parliament.

To complement the government's approach to corruption and integrity, this bill has been designed to support the NACC. With the implementation of this bill, the public sector whistleblower scheme will enjoy immediate improvements, well before the commencement of the NACC in mid-2023. Any reforms to the Public Interest Disclosure Act would be reflected in the NACC legislation through consequential amendments as required, to ensure the two regimes remain consistent and provide strong protections for whistleblowers.

This bill delivers comprehensive reforms to the public-sector whistleblowing scheme. The bill represents the first stage of a significant package of public-sector whistleblowing reform. Following passage of this bill, the government will commence a second stage of reform, which will include: public consultation on an exposure draft bill that redrafts the Public Interest Disclosure Act to address the underlying complexity of the scheme and to provide effective and accessible protections to public-sector whistleblowers; and a discussion paper on whether there is a need to establish a whistleblower protection authority or commissioner, as raised by many stakeholders and also members in this debate.

The bill will make priority amendments to the Public Interest Disclosure Act to support the government's commitment to ensuring Australia has effective frameworks to protect whistleblowers. In doing so, the bill reinforces our commitment to restoring integrity in government and the rule of law. Deputy Speaker Payne, like yourself, I represent a large number of public servants in my electorate, the electorate of Bean. I did so prior to coming to this place in my work as an industrial officer in the union movement, particularly working with organisations that represented workers in the public sector. I have had the great privilege of working with people of great integrity who, at times, have needed to shine a light on public-sector maladministration or corruption. The need for greater whistleblower protection and the ongoing need for integrity reform is clear to me, and it's a privilege to speak on a bill that is part of greater moves to address those issues.

There is still work to be done, but already reforms in the first year of the Albanese government have led to an improvement in our global corruption perceptions ranking, as the latest Transparency International data shows. This bill, and the commitment to further whistleblower work, strengthens our approach to good, ethical government. I commend the work of the Attorney-General and I commend this bill the House.