The Politics    Thursday, July 7, 2022

Making his Mark

By Rachel Withers

Image of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The dropping of Bernard Collaery’s prosecution is one of the simplest yet most meaningful actions this government has taken

Today was another day of clean up – in response to both the floods and the past nine years. Treasurer Jim Chalmers has directed Treasury to resume modelling the economic impacts of climate change, a practice that was abandoned under the Abbott government. It comes as the PM says the latest flooding proves the need for climate action, though it remains to be seen whether this will come with any increased urgency on emissions reduction. Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney has confirmed plans to push ahead with the overdue referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament next year, while talks with New Zealand on strategies for treaty and reconciliation with First Nations peoples have also begun. The crisis in aged care, meanwhile, is apparently even worse than first thought, with new minister Anika Wells declaring urgent reform necessary. Education Minister Jason Clare has announced an independent review of the Australian Research Council, following accusations of political interference, with the government vowing to reset its relationship with universities. But, in the biggest news of the day, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has asked the Commonwealth to drop the prosecution of Witness K’s lawyer, Bernard Collaery, four years after he was charged with leaking classified information about Australia’s alleged spying operation in Timor-Leste.

The dropping of this prosecution, authorised in 2018 by then attorney-general Christian Porter, is one of the simplest yet most meaningful actions this new government could take to undo the previous government’s record. Human rights experts, whistleblower advocates and crossbenchers had been calling for it for some time, with former senator and transparency advocate Rex Patrick continuing the fight on his way out the door of the parliament. (Dreyfus himself had labelled the secrecy around the case an “affront to the rule of law” while in Opposition.) The decision has been met with a sigh of relief, with commentators hailing it as “decent” and “common sense”. Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer and Monthly contributor Kieran Pender described it as “an important day for Australian democracy”, noting that Collaery should never have been prosecuted in the first place. “Whistleblowers should be protected, not punished,” he added, praising the “enduring work of lawyers, barristers, civil society organisations and activists” who have been fighting it. Labor MP Alicia Payne – who had called on the previous government to drop Collaery’s prosecution – took to Twitter to praise the decision, thanking “all the Canberrans who’ve tirelessly advocated for this”.

The fight is far from over, of course. Collaery is not the only one on trial, as Pender noted, calling for the ongoing prosecutions of Afghanistan war whistleblower David McBride and ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle to also be dropped (along with calling for whistleblower law reform). It does not seem likely that Dreyfus will be intervening in those other cases, however. Speaking at a press conference today, the attorney-general labelled the Collaery case “exceptional” – echoing his recent words to Patrick, when he refused to use his powers in the Boyle case. The Collaery decision, Dreyfus added today, did not represent a move away from the longstanding practice of protecting government secrets. There are also calls to go further in this case: Dan Gocher, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility’s director of climate and environment, suggested that Dreyfus should also expunge the record of Witness K (who pleaded guilty in June 2020), and order an inquiry into the role of then foreign minister Alexander Downer and his staff in the operation, while Media Watch’s Paul Barry said we should also be compensating Collaery “for wrecking his life and career”. (Rex Patrick has some ideas too.) Today’s decision has also renewed calls for the government to do more to intervene in the case of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, as he continues to fight his US extradition in the UK courts.

Today is, nevertheless, a welcome step – a simple action that, like the decision to release the Nadesalingam family back to Biloela, brings about an end to a prolonged injustice that the Coalition only seemed to be maintaining out of sheer spite. The new government has a long way to go when it comes to cleaning up the previous one’s many messes, and it has disappointed progressives in other ways today. But the Collaery decision is a reminder of the ways in which the removal of the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison government has already made Australia a better, fairer place. As Collaery wrote this afternoon in a statement through his lawyers, “This is a good decision for the administration of justice in Australia.” 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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