Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ethics, Whistle-blowing and Governments

On Friday last week (22 June 2007), a former Customs officer, Allan Kessing, was handed a 9-month suspended prison sentence. His crime? Releasing aspects of a report about Sydney airport security that alerted the public to serious flaws and inaction leading to high risk of death or injury. He was a "whistle-blower".

There a number of reasons that might lead a person to ethically release information that, under normal circumstances, they would not release. They include:
  • a poor, or nil, response from an organization when the whistle-blower has tried to work through normal internal channels to effect change
  • there is a real risk to public safety
  • reckless actions or inaction by an organization constitute serious wrongdoing
  • releasing the information would pass a "public interest" test
In this instance the report highlighted serious security problems, and Customs, Sydney Airport and the Federal Government made no attempt to initiate improvements to security. That inaction put the public at risk. Less than 1 week after the story became public there were significant and wide-ranging changes made by the Australian Federal Government and Sydney Airport Corporation.

A reasonable person would link the publication of the story and the resultant flurry of action, and think that the whistle-blower had done a "good job".

The Federal Government's response: call in the Police, because the Federal Government does not recognise public safety or public interest as cause for whistle-blowing; and it makes no secret of the fact that it will not tolerate, or protect, whistle-blowers or journalists, who act in the public interest. The US and many European countries do. John Howard does not. His government, and his hand-picked heads of departments, refer to whistle-blowing as "democratic sabotage". (Peter Shergold, Head of the Dept of Prime Minister and Cabinet) What nerve! The sabotage that is occurring in our democracy is that whistle-blowers are not protected if they act within strict guidelines, and that senior Public Servants no longer serve the public, but the politicians. This occurs at both State (Labor Gov'ts) and Federal (Lib/National) levels. They are are high-priced lackeys who answer "Yes, Minister" or ask "What advice do you want me to give?" Theirs, and their political masters, is the shame, and the democratic sabotage.

The Analyst