Ben Hills

What kind of people would meet furtively on a Saturday morning hundreds of kilometres from home, charter a houseboat, and motor to a secluded cove where, under cover of darkness, they make plans to change the course of public administration in Australia?

The Cold War may be over, James Bond may have hung up his Walther PPK, but espionage of a different sort is alive if unwell – the business of spying on the bureaucracy from within, and revealing its secrets. And the nine people who set sail on the good ship Luxury Sirius on Lake Macquarie the other weekend were well aware of the extreme prejudice that can result.

Among them were men (and one woman) who had been sacked or turned into non-people, made to idle out their working lives at desks with no telephone or paperwork, whose families had been split up by arbitrary transfers, who had been driven to the brink of insanity by ritual humiliation from the people they sought to expose.

“Honest public officials are the major potential source of the information needed to reduce public maladministration and misconduct,” said one man who ought to know – Tony Fitzgerald, whose devastating report cut a swathe through corrupt police, the judiciary and Parliament and laid the institutional foundations for what is now virtually a new State of Queensland.

But whistle-blowing comes at a price, and the people who met on Lake Macquarie early last month – a lawyer, an accountant, two doctors, as well as a number of former public servants – came together to formalise an organisation called Whistleblowers Anonymous, designed to protect whistle-blowers, to investigate and publicise wrongdoing in both private and government enterprises, and to lobby for legislation to protect people from victimisation.

They were introduced by a man named John McNicol, an improbable sort of hero – a 64-year-old Scottish-born journalist who worked for such august titles as Hardware and Homewear Retailer, before finishing up on the press staff of then-Attorney General Lionel Murphy in the early 1970s. Retired after a heart attack for 10 years now, McNicol runs a small PR agency called Judicator from his home in Canberra.

McNicol’s interest in whistle-blowers (he was never one himself, in spite of the wonderful opportunities presented by Murphy’s raid on ASIO, among other controversies of the Whitlam years) was rekindled last year when he bumped into a man he knew nearly 20 years ago when he was working for the Defence Department.

Dave (like many whistle-blowers he does not want to be identified, so we’ll call him that) had been directed to doctor a report recommending that some Navy frigates be built in the United States rather than in Australia. He had refused, and after taking the issue up with his superiors, he had been sidelined, isolated, had his mental health questioned, and was finally forced to take early retirement. More than a decade later he is still fighting for compensation.

“It was absolutely outrageous the way this man had been treated,” says McNicol. “I decided to see if there was any interest in starting some sort of organisation to help these people … I was overwhelmed with the response.”

It began with a column in a country newspaper, was picked up last winter by Public Eye, a paper circulating among the Canberra bureaucrats, and was pounced on by talkback radio. In a matter of months, McNicol had made contact with a couple of dozen people who wanted to help form the organisation … and more than 100 in the public service and in large companies who wanted advice on how to go about exposing various rorts.

Jean Lennane needs little introduction to readers of this newspaper. In January last year she sprang into the headlines attacking State Government health cutbacks, which she said included the planned closure of the detoxification unit at Rozelle Hospital.

What was unusual about this attack was that Dr Lennane, a 51-year-old psychiatrist specialising in drug abuse, was director of the unit and a public servant who was not supposed to make public comments. She also failed to endear herself to the bureaucrats by stating that the decision-making ability of senior people in the Health Department was affected by their heavy drinking.

The department came down on her like a ton of bricks. “Please explains”arrived by the truckload – including five letters in a single day. When she refused to shut up, she was handed a letter one morning terminating her employment – in effect, she would have forfeited around $150,000 in superannuation.

Fortunately for Dr Lennane, she had made some allies along the way. The usually conservative Australian Medical Association backed her up, saying the sacking was outrageous. Her union, the Public Medical Officers’ Association, also came to her help, saying that she had been the victim of a “campaign of harassment and victimisation” and mounting a claim against the dismissal.

At the end of the day, the department’s bureaucrats – after a crude attempt to blackmail her into silence with the threat to block her superannuation -agreed to allow Dr Lennane to resign. Now in private practice, she continues to speak out publicly against health budget cuts: “I was lucky in that I adopted a high profile. Other people who blow the whistle can get severely damaged … they get severe anxiety and depression; they become obsessive because of what has been done to them.”

Sharing barbecued chops and a glass of white wine with Jean Lennane on the houseboat is someone who suffered from exactly that. Bill Toomer is not the kind of man to seek a headline, but he took time to summarise his case – the full story is a blue-bound volume, complete with documentary appendices.

He was, he says, a health inspector for the then Department of Primary Industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Based in Geelong, then Fremantle, his main task was to inspect grain ships for rats and other vermin, to see whether they should be fumigated before being loaded. Unfortunately for Bill Toomer, he was a bit too conscientious at his job for the liking of the ship operators, who first offered him bribes, then apparently put pressure on his bosses.

Bill was first transferred to Port Hedland (which doesn’t get any grain ships) which split the family and eventually caused his marriage to break down. Then he was transferred again to an office job where he was given a desk with no phone or papers on it, and told he had to seek permission to leave the room. He was then sent to psychiatrists, and finally forced to take early retirement.

That was in 1980. Since then, Bill Toomer has been seeking compensation for the way in which he was persecuted. But still the bureaucracy fights on – he estimates that his progress through various courts and tribunals (including a marathon 44-day hearing by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal) has cost an extraordinary $4 million. And it is not over yet.

So that’s the health cut-backs and the rat-infested bilges. Where do the false teeth come in? Enter from the starboard galley, clutching a plate of tossed green salad, Dr Chris Howe, Newcastle plastic surgeon and whistle-blower extraordinaire who played an important part in the Government’s decision last August to sack the board of the Hunter Area Health Service – the organisation responsible for running hospitals in the region, administering a budget of $300 million and a staff of 680.

Just before Christmas 1990 Dr Howe decided to go public – a letter to the Newcastle Herald – with his concerns about the incompetence of the board, its budget blow-outs, and the nepotism involved in appointing relatives to various plum jobs. Among the inefficiencies – a huge backlog of old people waiting for false teeth because dental technicians at the hospital were mysteriously able to make only five or six sets a week, instead of that number per day in private clinics.

“I recognised that it was going to take a lot out of me, but it was something that had to be done,” says Dr Howe. He underestimated just how much flak he would have to take: the authority threatened to sue him and the paper, and his position as head of the melanoma unit at Royal Newcastle Hospital was also threatened.

In the end, Dr Howe’s position was vindicated when a government inquiry found “a litany of management failures” which had led to a $5 million budget blow-out; the board was sacked and an administrator appointed. “It was a good result, but I don’t know if I would have been able to tackle it without the support of my circle of friends,” says Dr Howe, who was elected president of the Hunter Medical Association as a result of the row.

And the false teeth? The administrator, Dr Tim Smyth, confirmed the inquiry had found “the dental clinic needed a bomb under it, although there was no evidence of corruption”. He says the director of the unit had resigned on the spot, the chief technician had taken a redundancy package, and he was expecting a considerable increase in productivity this year. In marked contrast with Dr Lennane’s former bosses, he says he was grateful to the whistle-blowers.

But, as we have seen, not all whistle-blowing has such a happy ending.

With the official retirement from the Senate last month of the Western Australian Greens Senator Jo Vallentine, Federal Parliament lost not only its first environment MP, but also its only campaigner for legislation to protect whistle-blowers.

In her last formal speech – unreported, as was most of what Senator Vallentine said in her eight years in the job – she moved the second reading of a bill to establish a whistleblowers’ protection agency with the power to conduct investigations, and to protect public servants who expose fraud and corruption.

She pointed out that under Commonwealth law there are no fewer than 150 separate secrecy provisions, including the draconian section 70 of the 1914 Crimes Act which provides a two-year jail sentence for any “unauthorised disclosure of information” by a current or former public servant. She also reminded anyone who happened to be dozing in the Senate at the time of Tony Fitzgerald’s comment that “the task of exposure (has) become impossible for all but the exceptionally courageous or reckless”.

Dr Vallentine’s replacement, a Perth psychologist named Christabel Chamarette , says the bill is also on her priority list, but she does not know when she will get an opportunity to reintroduce it. Nor whether it will get the support it needs from one of the major parties to become law.

Queensland, in fact, has already pioneered whistle-blower protection legislation in Australia, although not in a form which is satisfactory to Whistleblowers Anonymous. In October 1990, following the recommendation in the Fitzgerald Report, the Premier, Wayne Goss, introduced legislation making victimisation of whistle-blowers illegal, and allowing Supreme Court injunctions to be taken out to prevent it.

The catch is that the whistle has to be blown to either Queensland’s Criminal Justice Commission or to the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission to qualify the blower for protection. If he goes to the newspapers or to Four Corners – which, if past experience is any guide, are a more effective way of exposing corruption than going to “the authorities” – he gets no protection, unless it is a matter of “serious, specific and immediate danger to the health or safety of the public”.

John Hatton, the South Coast MP and NSW’s most indefatigable whistle-blower, describes this as unsatisfactory. Hatton and the other Independent MPs who hold the balance of power in the NSW Parliament, have just struck a deal with Premier Nick Greiner under which whistle-blower legislation will be introduced here.

Hatton has been campaigning for something like this for years – in fact, since 1978 when a Department of Motor Transport licence tester named Alan Barry, and a group of his colleagues, came forward to expose a bribery racket in driving licences, overweight trucks and taxi licences.

In spite of a scathing report confirming the allegations, none of the corrupt officers were charged and the only person sacked was Barry himself, dismissed, he says on a trumped-up charge of fiddling his expenses. Another whistle-blower, according to John Hatton, was framed on a bribery charge, and a third, a woman, became a “mental wreck” after sexual harassment by her colleagues.

“If we had had something like this (legislation), corruption would never have been allowed to flourish in this State like it has,” says Hatton.

He says the legislation – which may be introduced as soon as next May – “is not the be-all and end-all but, in conjunction with ICAC and the Ombudsman, it is as close as you will get.”

As for Whistleblowers Anonymous, nothing of any great substnace has emerged yet, in spite of some unfortunately hyperbolic statements about “$500 million in corruption in the Defence forces alone”. But give them time.

“We are talking about a real sea-change, a complete change in bureaucratic culture,” says McNicol. “It is not going to happen overnighht, but we believe it will happen, and we believe we can play a role.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 04 April 1992
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 38
Word count: 2345
Keywords: Public service Witnesses
Picture by Ben Rushton
Caption: On course … Whistle-blowers Jean Lennane, Bill Dobson, John McNicol, Chris Howe, Bill Toomer, Keith Potter, Robert Curtis and Bruce Hamilton.