by SYBILLA GROSS
Senator Rex Patrick has called for constitutional change to defend public interest journalism in the face of sweeping national security laws that threaten to undermine Australian democracy.
"National security exists for a purpose, it's a means to an ends, and that ends is to protect our democracy. If we don't have press freedom, we don't have a democracy,” he told a Melbourne Press Club forum on 25 June.
Patrick, a key Centre Alliance crossbencher in the new Senate, proposed a "First Amendment-style provision" via a referendum to defend the rights of journalists and whistleblowers.
He also demanded that the Federal Government intervene in the prosecution of Australian Taxation Office whistleblower Richard Boyle who is facing up to 161 years in jail for exposing systemic abuses within the ATO.
“No government can seriously say they are interested in protecting whistleblowers and then let this prosecution stand,” he said.
Boyle, who attended the forum with his wife Louise Beaston, said the case had had a devastating impact on him and his family. He was forced to seek a magistrate’s permission to travel to Melbourne under his bail conditions.
"But what I exposed, it was really important for me to tell the truth," he said, adding that he had refused an offer of "tens of thousands of taxpayer's money" in a bid to keep him quiet.
Senator Patrick, who is now lobbying Attorney General Christian Porter on behalf of Boyle, spoke of the vital role that whistleblowers perform in both the public and private sectors.
"I think it's important to note at the very start that whistleblowers promote integrity, they deter misconduct and they must be protected in doing that," he said.
Age journalist and MPC president Adele Ferguson - who broke the ATO story and has worked closely with many whistleblowers in recent years - said the impact could be devastating on those individuals at the heart of stories exposing corruption and misconduct. These impacts included post-traumatic stress disorder, severe legal action, job loss and relationship breakdowns.
"It's never a good story,” she told the forum.
Boyle said he felt all consumed by a "pit of despair".
"In Adele's article, when I said that I felt like they could have killed me, I say that quite literally. I mean, if I'd not woken up one day, I wouldn't have been surprised, with the level of mental stress."
Senator Patrick zeroed in on what he sees as a very problematic Public Disclosure Act.
"Right now we have whistleblower laws in the public sector which lure people into thinking they can make a disclosure, only to find that there is no real protection. And that, in some sense, is worse than having no whistleblower protection at all. We have to fix it."
Boyle said that given his circumstances he was unsure whether his colleagues, or any other public officer, would now be prepared to come forward with information about corruption or misconduct.
"Unfortunately, with what has happened to me, they probably don't feel particularly comfortable at the moment."