Aussies back stronger protections for whistleblowers

Seven in 10 Australians believe whistleblowers shouldn't be prosecuted, in the wake of the controversial conviction of an army lawyer who leaked information about alleged war crimes.

The survey was taken two weeks after David McBride was jailed in the ACT after pleading guilty to leaking classified defence information to journalists.

The 60-year-old was sentenced on May 14 to five years and eight months imprisonment over the leak, which exposed allegations of war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

The survey, conducted for the Whistleblower Justice Fund, also found 59 per cent of respondents think McBride, who is appealing his sentence, should be pardoned.

War crimes whistleblower David McBride
David McBride was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail for leaking defence information. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

McBride's sentence outraged human rights groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch Australia.

The issue was again in the spotlight after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last month pleaded guilty to a charge of espionage in a United States territory court and returned to Australia after years of evading the long arm of US prosecutors.

Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson said at the time there were some parallels between his case and McBride's based on free speech.

Former South Australian independent senator and founder of the Whistleblower Justice Fund, Rex Patrick, said Australians don't want whistleblowers to be jailed.

"The recent long overdue return home of Julian Assange has only underscored the grim irony of McBride's predicament," he said.

Julian Assange on his return to Australia
Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson says there are some parallels between his case and McBride's. (AP PHOTO)

"The only person imprisoned for war crimes committed by Australian forces in Afghanistan is the whistleblower, not a war criminal - that's not right."

The survey, carried out by Essential Research, was conducted between May 29 and June 2 with 1160 participants.

It found 73 per cent of people agreed there should be stronger laws to protect whistleblowers, up from 71 per cent in the previous survey conducted in August 2023.

Seventy per cent said whistleblowers shouldn't be prosecuted when they speak out in public, up from 68 per cent.

And 60 per cent agreed the government should drop current prosecutions against whistleblowers, up from 58 per cent.

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender is calling on the federal government to set up an independent whistleblower protection authority.

"The Albanese government was elected with a commitment to fixing public sector whistleblowing reform - that reform grows more urgent by the day," he said.

Whistleblowers are people, often employees, who inform on persons or organisations allegedly engaging in wrongdoing, such as fraud, corruption or human rights abuses.