With much happening in Canberra yesterday, the day also saw the Australian Government take an important step in the protection of whistleblowers. The Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2013, introduced by the Gillard government earlier this year, has now been passed by the Senate and is awaiting royal assent. This is despite recent speculation that the Bill would fail to find sufficient support to pass both Houses due to a lack of bipartisan support and the threat of Independent Andre Wilkie withdrawing support.
The Bill, which is intended to encourage a culture of disclosure of wrongdoing within the public service and strengthen protections for public service whistleblowers, was originally introduced by Independent Andrew Wilkie into the lower house in late 2012 as the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2012. When the Government introduced its own Bill earlier this year, Mr Wilkie expressed concerns that it had been watered down and was "deficient". However, following some substantial amendments by the Attorney General Mark Dreyfus in response to the second reading debate in the Lower House on 19 June 2013, the protections in the Bill were once again strengthened and have now gained sufficient support to pass both Houses.
Additional focus on whistleblower protection is critical for the Australian Government. While the passage of the Public Interest Disclosure Bill is an important step, more can still be done. The new Act will address whistleblowing within the public service, however, an even more holistic view needs to be taken of the effect of fraud and corruption on the public purse. There has been a lot of focus on corruption and mismanagement within the public sector in recent time but, financially speaking, empirical evidence shows that far more resources are lost through fraud committed against the Government by those outside of the public service. Many have lobbied for the introduction of legislation similar to the American False Claims Act to encourage whistleblowing against fraudulent activity in the private sector that is ultimately costing the Australian Government millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars each year. Legislation of this nature would complement the new Public Interest Disclosure Act to promote an open culture and discourage misuse of public funds. There has been rising interest, both within the Government and amongst commentators, about the possible introduction of such legislation and it remains to be seen when this will be introduced.
See our recent discussion on the operation of an Australian False Claims Act in Australia here.