Australian attorney-general holds firm on 'whistleblowers'

Australian attorney-general holds firm on 'whistleblowers'

Summary: The AG's office maintains the distinction between 'genuine whistleblowing' and 'unauthorised disclosures' and says Manning and Snowden's actions were not whistleblowing.


The Australian government is standing firm on its position that the actions of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in bringing the activities of the US government to light did not constitute whistleblowing.

In a speech given last week, Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus argued that where an activity has been authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies, and where no wrongdoing has been identified, the disclosure of such information is not whistleblowing.

"This is a critical point that is often overlooked in much of the media coverage of the release of classified information by Mr Snowden in particular," Dreyfus said.

In a statement to ZDNet, Dreyfus' office maintained the argument that the actions of Snowden and Manning did not fall under this definition and were therefore not whistleblowing.

"The attorney-general drew attention to the important distinction that should be made between genuine whistleblowing, which means revealing illegal activities by government, and unauthorised disclosures of confidential information in relation to actions that are in fact authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies," a spokesperson for Dreyfus said.

The response follows an allegation by the Greens party that there was a "bipartisan agreement" between the Australian government and the opposition to ignore the contributions that whistleblowers such as Manning and Snowden make to democracy.

"We have, over the last day or so, seen our attorney-general declare that people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not whistleblowers, and respectively cutting them loose, indicating that the Australian government doesn't support the kind of legal protection that really should be [given] to whistleblowers who disclose war crimes," Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam said.

"I would argue there is a bipartisan agreement to simply not talk about it. To not make eye contact with any of us and pretend it is all going to go away."

Dreyfus' spokesperson said that rather than sideline whistleblowers, the attorney-general has taken "an active role" to protect whistleblowers.

"Commonwealth public-sector whistleblowers have greater protection under the government's recently passed Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013," the spokesperson said.

"The Public Interest Disclosure Act provides a clear set of rules for agencies to respond to allegations of wrongdoing made by current and former public officials, and strengthens protections against victimisation and discrimination for those speaking out."

In addition, Ludlam claimed that the PRISM program, as well as proposals such as the Australian government's shelved plan for a data retention bill, constituted a "surveillance agenda" being pushed by Western governments.

The spokesperson for the attorney-general said that the Australian government would not comment on the surveillance and security practices of the US — in particular the PRISM program — but maintained that Australia's own practices are legal.

"The attorney-general has said that all communication interception activities carried out by Australian government agencies are conducted in strict accordance with Australian law," the spokesperson said.

Topics: Government AU, Government US, Privacy, Security

Tim Lohman

About Tim Lohman

Tim has written about the technology sector since the mid 2000s. He covers innovation across the business, education and government sectors.

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  • Australian Whistleblower law 2013

    The Attorney-General is correct, and carefully so: this is the main point of difference bewteen the Australian approach to whistleblowing generally, and that of the US.

    The new federal law (the first of its kind at this level) is simply following the established practice of the various State laws which have been in place since 1993, and which protect only disclosures of 'wrongdoing' as defined by law - mainly criminal conduct, corruption, and 'official misconduct'.

    But a disclosure attracts significant protections,and can be made to any 'proper authority', anonymously, without having to provide evidence, and without having to be proven right after investigation - all provided that the genuine whistleblower holds 'an honst belief, on reasonable grounds' that their disclosure is true. Deliberately making a false disclosure', known to be false, is a criminal offence.

    All of this reflects the Australian approach, that WB protection law is not primarily about protecting WBs - the primary objective is to encourage the disclosure of corruption and other wrongdoing, in the public interest.

    The new Australian law accordingly provides very significant protections to encourage that to happen - a further point of difference fromthe US approach (which basically doesn't work...). The new law is not perfect, but it's getting close to what we might call 'best practice' just now.

    • The AG is incorrect

      in failing to note, as others point out, that Snowden was reporting highly illegal activities. The real problem with the US law is that it is tainted by politics. Snowden falls squarely within the definition of whistleblower under US as well as Aussie law. US laws are also meant to encourage whistleblowing the same way Australian laws are meant to encourage whistleblowing -- by protecting the whistleblower. The problem is that there is a great deal of inconsistent, contradictory caselaw in the US about who is protected and who isn't, and it all comes down to politics. In an ideal world where the law was applied correctly and consistently, Snowden would be protected, and Dick Cheney and Robert Novak would not. However Dick and Robert were acting to try to stamp out an embarrassment to the government (thus the need to even resort to whistleblower laws never even arose), whereas Snowden did the opposite, so Snowden will be baring the full brunt of government persecution whilst Dick and Robert are laughing (Dick having the additional protection of being a Vice President at the time of his traitorous act). You will probably find that Australian whistleblower protections will be applied just as inconsistently with time.
  • Edward Snowden Is Legally A Whistleblower

    Considering the illegality of a lot of the activity he disclosed:
  • Manning's expose included the Collateral Murder video

    Has the Attorney General not SEEN this video of a massacre by US helicopter gunships? Is he seriously asserting that this is not "wrongdoing"?
    Conal Tuohy
  • 'Wrongdoing' required

    No, the Attorney- General is not saying that. What he is saying is only this:
    "...where an activity has been authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies, and where no wrongdoing has been identified, the disclosure of such information is not whistleblowing" (under the new Australian law, which defines 'wrongdoing' for the purposes of the appl;iation of the Act).
    • 'and where no wrongdoing has been identified'...

      ... so you, like the AG, are condoning the illegal activities of the NSA, and multiple rogue cadres within the US armed forces and administration? Well that's good then, we know where we stand. Dreyfus is a disgrace to the country, his constituents, and a piss poor legal hack at best...
  • argumentum ad absurdum...

    So if the government (US or here) decided to create a law, in secret, which authorised the assassination of citizens / journalists who were making things difficult for them, and it was overseen by a secret government committee, that would be Ok to the Australian AG?

    I've never met this AG, but he sounds like a dick...
    • You are correct

      "I've never met this AG, but he sounds like a dick..."

      He is a politician, so by definition, you are correct.