A group of high-profile whistleblowers who helped establish royal commissions and change laws have written an open letter to the federal government accusing it of overseeing a broken system that exposed whistleblowers to charges costly legal issues – and worse.
It comes a week before former Afghan war crimes whistleblower David McBride begins his criminal trial in Canberra, which if convicted could earn him a prison sentence of perpetuity.
Mr McBride was an Army lawyer who leaked classified information to the ABC revealing allegations of war crimes committed by special forces in Afghanistan.
“Far from remedying this injustice, your actions and omissions have only exacerbated the plight of whistleblowers,” reads the open letter from the whistleblower group.
Speaking days before the trial, Mr McBride said he felt the cards were stacked against him.
“I’m a soldier,” he said. “But I worry about my family. It will be hard and it will be confronting for them.”
Mr McBride faces five charges, including disclosing information in contravention of the Crimes Act and unlawfully communicating classified information under the Defense Act.
“The maximum is 100 years if convicted and the judge is forced to go back,” he said. “It is serious.”
Before going public, Mr. McBride filed a formal internal whistleblower complaint, but his concerns were ignored and he turned to the media.
These allegations were supported by the Brereton Inquiry, which found evidence of war crimes committed by Australian SAS personnel during their service.
“I have a clear conscience,” he said. “I believe I did the right thing, but these are very serious accusations.”
The open letter – composed by individuals including Commonwealth Bank whistleblower Jeff Morris, who helped trigger a royal commission into the powerful financial services sector, and Peter Fox, who helped trigger a commission royal on institutional child sexual abuse – says Albanian government’s record on protection Whistleblowers have been dismal and since coming to power have done ‘only make new promises’ and offer empty platitudes.”
He said that by not dropping charges against Mr McBride, the government had given people reason to be wary of speaking out.
“We tell all potential whistleblowers not to become whistleblowers under the Albanian government until it starts protecting whistleblowers, instead of prosecuting them.”
The letter states that since coming to power in May 2022, the government has failed to put in place any meaningful protections and has instead exposed whistleblowers to millions of dollars in legal costs.
“Three of the undersigned have introduced or are in the process of introducing seven-figure bills defending the truth and the victimization of them for being whistleblowers; two have lost their homes as a result and a third is at risk to do so in the future,” it says. read.
He described the prosecution of Mr McBride and ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle as “disgraceful”.
“McBride and Boyle attempted to take action internally before going public. Both exposed serious failures within government that would not have been corrected without their action. Both were vindicated.”
Section 71B of the Judiciary Act authorizes the Attorney General to terminate prosecutions that are not in the public interest.
This power was used to end the prosecution of Bernard Collaery, who was facing charges related to allegedly revealing details of an alleged Australian spying operation in Timor-Leste during sensitive oil and gas treaty negotiations.
Kieran Pender, a senior attorney at the Human Rights Law Center who has organized rallies, panels and conferences to help strengthen whistleblower protections and who has lobbied the government to drop charges against Mr McBride and Mr Boyle said whistleblowers should be protected. not punished.
“An Australian whistleblower is just a week away from being tried for exposing horrific wrongdoing. It is deeply unfair that the first person to be tried for war crimes in Afghanistan is the whistleblower, and not a suspected war criminal,” he said.
“It is not too late for the government to stop this travesty before it starts: the government must act now.”
Calls for greater protections
In recent months, there has been a groundswell of public support for better protection of whistleblowers, with campaigns, panels, open letters, online petitions and speeches to Parliament from MPs non-members and Green Senator David Shoebridge.
Polling by the Australia Institute in conjunction with the Human Rights Law Center shows three-quarters of respondents believe whistleblowers make Australia a better country and even more support protections stricter legal measures (84 percent), including the creation of a whistleblower protection authority (79). percent).
The whistleblower community also came out in force. Commonwealth Bank whistleblower Jeff Morris said whistleblowers must be protected.
“We support David McBride and Richard Boyle. They are honest people who did the right thing and are being prosecuted for it,” he said.
“I speak to David and I think he is showing courage, but he has two daughters and this must take its toll.”
Mr McBride and his family will travel to Canberra on Friday before the trial begins on Monday.
On Sunday, a convoy of whistleblowers, former politicians and the public will also travel to Canberra to hold a rally in support of Mr McBride as he enters the courtroom.
“I’m driving on Sunday in my old Range Rover with Troy (Stoltz, who blew the whistle on ClubsNSW, disclosing a report that up to 95 per cent of clubs were failing to comply with anti-money laundering and anti-cropping rules). terrorism. rules),” Mr. Morris said.
“There is a Woodstock rally planned at Glebe Park with live music and speeches.”
On Monday, full-page adverts will appear in major newspapers, including a full page in The Age, and a rally will take place outside the courts, featuring former senator Rex Patrick, Greens senator David Shoebridge, Kieran Pender and a group. whistleblowers.
But only the government or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions can stop the trial.
Rex Patrick, who recently launched a public defense fund to help inform the public about the prosecutions of Mr McBride and Mr Boyle, said it was a critical time for the government.
“There is a chance that David McBride will go to prison if the attorney general does not exercise the powers that Parliament has given him to use in exactly this kind of situation,” he said.
“The result of…inaction will be one courageous whistleblower behind bars and thousands of potential whistleblowers lost in the community. Where is the public interest in that?”
Mr. McBride is philosophical: “If I have to go to prison, I will go to prison with my head held high.”
The verdict is widely expected to generate enormous media attention and have a deterrent effect on future whistleblowers.