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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Joe Hinchliffe

Whistleblower protection overhaul needed in Queensland to prevent next Fitzgerald inquiry, experts say

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has agreed to the recommendations of three high-profile inquiries that have called for a review of whistleblower protections. Photograph: Russell Freeman/AAP

Queensland urgently needs to protect whistleblowers if it is to avoid a repeat of the fiasco which led to this week’s Tony Fitzgerald-led inquiry, experts and advocates say.

The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has so far this year agreed to the recommendations of no fewer than three high-profile inquiries in Queensland that have called for a review of whistleblower protections.

But the premier is yet to provide any details about who will lead it and what, specifically, they will be tasked with examining.

Those details, according to Whistleblowers Action Group Queensland’s Greg McMahon, will determine whether the review is credible.

McMahon said whistleblower protection was “the outstanding issue” that had not been addressed properly since Fitzgerald’s watershed inquiry into police corruption 33 years ago.

The new report Fitzgerald handed to Palaszczuk on Tuesday emerged largely as a result of the Crime and Corruption Commission’s investigation into the Logan city council.

This arose from the council’s then chief executive, who had made a public-interest disclosure to the CCC. The CCC believed it had a duty to protect its whistleblower but lacked the teeth to do so.

They charged seven councillors and the former mayor Luke Smith with fraud, charges they were later forced to drop. Smith is still before the courts after being charged with a corruption offence.

A scathing parliamentary committee that looked into the Logan affair and sparked this year’s Fitzgerald inquiry found the CCC had no “statutory duty to protect whistleblowers”.

“To imply such a duty risks overreach and risks the CCC acting beyond the remit that statute gives to it,” it found.

Its top recommendation was a review into “the effectiveness and appropriateness” of whistleblower protections, to which the government agreed in January.

The chair of that committee, the LNP’s Jon Krause, said he had been eagerly awaiting Palaszczuk to act on that promise.

Speaking as Scenic Rim MP, Krause said a whistleblower inquiry should be open, with public submissions.

In contrast to the inquiry into police responses to domestic violence, which held public hearings, the inquiry into the CCC deliberated behind closed doors and only released submissions once its report was public.

Among those submissions was that of a leading academic in whistleblower protections, Prof AJ Brown from Griffith University. Brown was critical of “the one-eyed approach” of the parliamentary committee, but backed its calls for a whistleblower review.

“This was the bad law at the heart of the whole Logan fiasco,” he said.

“I don’t think the CCC made the right decisions, but they were between a rock and a hard place”.

McMahon said reprisals against whistleblowers in Queensland now take “much more sophisticated forms” – such as attempts to deny “fearless legal representation” – than they did in the past.

He said a review must be given a mandate to expose these reprisals and propose safeguards against them, such as a Whistleblower Protection Authority to act as “a shield to the sword” that is the CCC.

The authority would be concerned solely with the welfare of those who leak information in the public interest, leaving the watchdog primarily concerned with investigating their disclosure, he said.

While not everyone supports this solution, the problem it aims to fix is widely accepted.

The Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said Australia’s whistleblowing laws were in urgent need of reform to ensure whistleblowers were protected, not punished.

“This is particularly true in Queensland, as consecutive reviews have found, and at the federal level,” Pender said.

“These reform processes must ensure whistleblowers can access practical support to enforce their rights. Only then will whistleblowers be fully empowered to speak up, safely and lawfully, in this country.”

Palaszczuk has committed “lock, stock and barrel” to implementing the Coaldrake review handed down in June, which called on the government to deliver its promised whistleblower review within at least six months.

“The recommendation is being progressed in a responsible manner and the review is expected to be under way soon,” a government spokesperson said on Wednesday.

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