Twirling towards freedom

Queensland hushes up whistleblowers

“The CMC will also no longer be used and abused for personal or political gain after it was found that it was being flooded with trivial, vexatious or misdirected complaints,” Queensland’s attorney general said yesterday when announcing a raft of overhauls to the Crime and Misconduct Commission.

It’s a noble idea – the state’s crime watchdog blowing the final whistle on false whistleblowing – but what will the newly announced overhauls mean?

Well, for starters, there won’t be any more anonymous tipoffs. Under new legislation, complainants will have to sign a statutory declaration which leaves them open to criminal prosecution should their complaint be found to be baseless. Beryl Crosby, the Bundaberg Base Hospital patient who blew the whistle on Jayant Patel’s grossly incompetent medical practices, has labelled the new changes an “end to democracy.” Former police officer Nigel Powell, a key Fitzgerald inquiry whistleblower, has told The Courier Mail that he may not have come forward had he been required to sign a stat dec. Somewhere between Crosby’s slightly hysterical claim about the end of government as we know it, and Powell’s more relaxed “maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t have” position lies genuine cause for concern.

Will all future whistleblowers be deterred from coming forward, or only those who employ baseless complaints as a political weapon? Will the reforms, as Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie has said, free up the CMC to go after the “Mr Bigs” or will the CMC complaints department suddenly have a lot of spare time on its hands?

The problem is that many people who in the past have made a complaint didn’t know exactly, precisely what were complaining about. It may have been a suspicious pattern of behaviour, an inkling that something wasn’t quite right. When it comes down to it, who will take the chance that if proven incorrect, their suspicion could land them with criminal charges?

If this proves to be a problem, it’s not one that the public are going to know about. Under the new reforms, it will also be an offence to disclose that a complaint has been made to the CMC, or any details of the nature of that investigation, or that an investigation is underway. Unless the complaint is referred to the courts, the media will be unable to report on investigations into serious misconduct. It’s a fine notion to remove the possibility of the media being manipulated into a political plaything, but there has to be some degree of openness and transparency about issues that are very much in the public interest.

The CMC reforms were initiated by Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. The background to it is that in the lead up to last year’s state election, there were damaging claims levelled at Newman regarding the business dealings of his family. They were found to be baseless, but by the time this was determined they had already been aired widely. It’s not surprising that Newman wants to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But the balance between accountability and censorship is a tricky one to maintain, and the government response is a set of reforms with an unsurprising lack of finesse.

 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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