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Public Interest Disclosures (Members of Parliament) Bill 2021

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Tags: Whistleblowers, Corruption, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank the Attorney General and the shadow Justice spokesperson, Ms Haddad, for their positive comments on our bill. This is how parliament should work. It really is.

Ms Archer - Do you want some tissues?

Ms O'CONNOR - I will be right, thanks.

No party and no person has a monopoly on good ideas and good policy. Actually, I will retract that: the Greens have a bit of a monopoly on good policy. It is very encouraging to see such a collegial approach in this Chamber to legislation that will tighten up the Public Interest Disclosures Act but also just one small step, bringing this parliament in line with contemporary community expectations, that we do not regard ourselves as a closed shop. One small step to making those substantive changes which the Bolt report has told us that we need to make.

This is the kind of work that parliament does which people do not see very often where we do agree on something, where we recognise that there is a problem we can collectively fix. That is what is happening here. I commend Dr Woodruff for bringing this legislation forward.

I want to say a bit about the value of whistleblowers. They can be a thorn in the side of a government or a corporation. They are a counter to misconduct and corruption and, ultimately, they are guided by a belief in truth, in doing the right thing and in an act of public servant. There are some fantastic stories of whistleblowers. One of the first I became aware of when I was a fair bit younger was the mighty Erin Brockovich. I do not know if anyone here has seen the movie or read the story. That was one incredibly brave woman who took on Pacific Gas & Electric company which was contaminating groundwater in a small town in California. She was demonised, she was hounded, her life was put at risk, and she did this for her community and she won. As a consequence of her courage and being the kind of whistleblower the world needs more of, her community's health was protected into the future and a big corporation was taken on.

Then there is the whistleblower of infamous renown in this parliament, Nigel Burch, who was a former staff member for Steve Kons. Mr Burch became aware that a proposed appointment of our current Coroner, Simon Cooper, as a magistrate had been initially agreed - I understand by Cabinet - and then unagreed, because Mr Cooper had been outspoken on the pulp mill, I believe it was. I do not have that history in front of me. I was not in parliament at the time; Mr Rockliff, the Premier, and maybe Ms O'Byrne from the current class of 2022 were in parliament at the time - but I vividly remember my former colleague, the member for Bass, Kim Booth, coming in here with the document that Nigel Burch had fished out of the shredder, which was the appointment letter for magistrate Cooper, which minister Kons had popped into the shredder once it became clear to him that he was not going to be able to appoint magistrate Cooper.

The issue then was that the Greens at that time, under Peg Putt's leadership, basically laid a trap for the minister, because the first question related to the potential appointment and minister Kons said one thing, which was not quite true. Then the second question had the evidence of the shredded letter in it, which Mr Booth had spent the entire previous night sitting up and sticking together with sticky tape. Because the then Attorney-General - I believe he was - and minister for planning had egregiously and knowingly misled the House, he immediately had to resign. For former premier Paul Lennon, the name Nigel Burch would evoke a very different reaction than it would to the Greens because Nigel Burch, as a whistleblower, exposing a corrupt act, had caused very significant problems for the Lennon Government - but he did us a public service.

If we have a culture that first of all fosters integrity and decency in government and business and other entities, you are much less likely to see whistleblowers step forward - but whistleblowers can be a bulwark against misconduct, abuse of public trust and corruption, so we should be thankful to them.

More recently, of course, people have come forward over what it has been like for the children and young people at Ashley Youth Detention Centre. Again, the whistleblowers around Ashley have caused problems for the government of the day - but through that courage have shone a very bright light on an institution that has been torturing and damaging children for a century.

It is not actually about the government of the day. It is about the place that Liz Bennett, the counsel assisting the commission, described as a 'monster'. We and the broader community needed to have some deeper insight into what life was like at Ashley Youth Detention Centre for those children and young people. Because of the courage of whistleblowers - people who had worked there, like Alysha - we could see that this place is no place for children and young people. That has had a cascading effect, where we had the previous premier make the courageous decision - overdue, but he made the decision - that Ashley Youth Detention Centre will close.

When you look at the vitally important work of the commission of inquiry now, it is the courage of whistleblowers, who have stepped up, who have been foundational to the work of the Commission. We owe a debt of gratitude to the whistleblowers out there. We recognise that it takes great, great courage to step outside your workplace and expose a truth that you know will potentially lead to very negative consequences for you - loss of job, humiliation, ridicule, marginalisation, demonisation - because you had the courage to step out and step up and tell the truth when it needed to be told.

The same should apply to people who want to report or make a conduct complaint against MPs and MLCs. It is my very great hope that as we move through implementing the recommendations of the Bolt report, there will be much less reason for anyone to want to make a conduct complaint to the Integrity Commission or the ombudsman about an MP or a member of the Legislative Council.

Dr Woodruff will probably want to say a few closing words, but again, I am surprised and delighted that our legislation will be passed.

There is so much we could agree on. It is a really interesting workplace in that way, and on a personal level, I like a lot of people I work with very much. I love Dr Woodruff, but I am very fond of many of people who work in here. I might also say that while the Attorney-General and I might disagree on some things, and occasionally get snippy across the Chamber, Ms Archer is one of the hardest-working - and I think most fundamentally decent - ministers in this place. I admire you, Ms Archer.

Ms Archer - I did frame your words at Estimates.

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes, that is right. It is okay. It will be on, then.

Ms Archer - She made a really nice comment and my staff rang me.

Ms O'CONNOR - But I do, Attorney-General, and partly because we have been elected for a similar amount of time, and we are very lucky to be MPs for Clark. I have also seen you out and about in the electorate and you are a very hard worker. Thank you for being open-minded about the amendment bill.

I can only reiterate Dr Woodruff in commending our bill to the House.