For decades, Australian journalists have uncovered truth and aided the quest for good governance around the world – “telling it like it is” with the frankness that makes Australians so well-loved in so many nations.
Indeed, for most of the 130 years since Sir Henry Parkes’ original Tenterfield Oration, the world has usually looked on Australia as one of the healthiest, most innovative democracies. No wonder, then, that the world stood shocked when on 4 and 5 June 2019, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) executed search warrants on the home of a News Corporation federal political journalist in Canberra, and the Sydney headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, as part of an investigation into possible criminal offences by journalists for receiving and publishing unauthorised disclosures of government information.
In fact, the timings were clearly no coincidence. A third AFP raid on News Corporation’s Sydney headquarters was also planned for the following days, but quietly abandoned due to the media and public backlash. These events confirmed, more dramatically than before, that alongside all our trends towards more open and accountable government, we have experienced powerful counter-trends that undermine those advances, increasingly threatening both the health of our democracy and its long-held reputation. Even before the AFP raids, Australia was slipping on the World Press Freedom Index, largely due to laws eroding journalists’ ability to investigate governments and protect their sources. Viewed this way, the raids were a natural product of creeping increases in the criminalisation of public information as a result of national security, intelligence and border protection laws, about which many people have warned us, including at least one previous Henry Parkes Orator, Professor George Williams and my Griffith University colleague, Dr Kieran Hardy. But these trends have an even larger context. Since 2012, Australia has also been slipping on other indices, including the global Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by my colleagues in Transparency International. Many of the fundamental elements or pillars of our nation’s integrity systems remain strong, but as our current assessment of those systems shows, many are not keeping up with our national and international challenges.
Fundamentally, the values of honesty and truth in our democracy, and others around the world, have not been under such sustained attack for perhaps 80 years. The weaknesses in our integrity systems are many and varied. In Australia’s case, they do actually begin with our ability to acknowledge the constitutional truth that our nation was settled by Europeans, but never ceded by its First Nations, and to deal with all the implications of that. I am delighted this year to be following Professor Megan Davis’ 2018 Oration, and her call for support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians in the form of a Voice to Parliament. We are still speaking here about integrity – our ability to tell and recognise the truth, including the truth that this proposal is perfectly constitutionally acceptable: as former High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson has pointed out, a Voice to Parliament can enrich our democracy, rather than being a measure that would undermine it. As Megan said last year, unless recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people includes structural and not simply symbolic change to deal with the reality of the situation, constitutional reform is, ‘to put it crudely, putting lipstick on a pig’.
Now, my grandfather raised pigs, and I am sure Megan has nothing against pigs. But the same choice between symbolism and substance affects all issues of integrity, justice and accountability in our democracy. Remember that Sir Henry Parkes, the longest-serving Premier of New South Wales and the one who charted the path for Australia’s colonies to federate on an American model, had a very progressive, as in dynamic view of how our system of government should evolve, to serve what was then his quite radical idea of a ‘great and growing Commonwealth’. We should remember he got into trouble in London in 1882, for daring to suggest – accurately – that democracy was becoming more advanced in the Australian colonies than in the Mother Country. And, we should recognise this is no longer a claim that he could honestly make, were he standing today in London, or even in Washington or a range of other capital cities around the world. (I will shortly mention Sir Henry again, one more time.)
Taking this long-term view of our direction of travel, we see a strong national integrity system as involving wider issues than simply the freedom for public interest journalism to operate, if it is to meet the challenges of our times. Clearly, press freedom is vital, and no-one should doubt my huge personal sympathy for journalists caught in the cross-fire. My father was a long-serving political journalist in Canberra, who once famously told our dinner table that my sister would make a very good secretary, so much to his delight, she became a very accomplished journalist too. But importantly, in Australia at least, the threat of criminal prosecutions against journalists is still mainly just that: a cross-fire. The primary targets – intended and sometimes unintended – are actually the employees, officials and everyday citizens who might, and do, speak up with concerns about wrongdoing in their organisations. I am talking here about protecting the sources of information on whom not only journalists, but all of us rely. This is what the rest of this Oration is about – the whistleblowers at the heart of this struggle.