Whistling tricksy

There is no formal process by which the Whitehouse Institute of Design awards its Chairman’s Scholarships. That they are awarded at all is not advertised. Indeed, the website for the private college advises that it does not offer scholarships for its bachelor of design.

Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances, had graduated before it was revealed she had received this scholarship for her $60,000 course. The chairman who recommended Frances, Les Taylor, is a friend of Abbott’s. Twice before, Abbott had made disclosures of gifts from Taylor. Although the Whitehouse Institute has since said the scholarship was awarded on merit, the process is entirely opaque. Speaking to Fairfax Media after the story was broken, Taylor said: ‘‘I probably did say to someone at Whitehouse, ‘Frances is a nice girl or something … good family, works hard, I reckon she’d do well.’ ’’

We know these spare facts because a part-time librarian at the institute, Freya Newman, accessed a database that contained details of the scholarship and shared that information with journalists. She has been pursued by police and has pleaded guilty to one count of accessing restricted data without authorisation. Next month, she may be sentenced to as many as two years in jail. There are no whistleblower protections available to her. At the time of the leak, Abbott said: “I think that family should be off limits from politics. I think this is just a dirt-digging exercise, and families should be left out.”

This week, while Newman was back in court, a temporary injunction was being granted to prevent further publication of leaked emails sent by Professor Barry Spurr. Spurr is one of the phalanx of aged conservatives assembled to review the national curriculum. He is also a man, his emails show, who abhors “Abo lovers”, “Mussies”, “Chinky-poos” and the collection of women he deems “serpents” and “whores”.

We know about these emails because they were leaked to New Matilda. To his small credit, Spurr is not pursuing the person who leaked them and will not therefore force the publisher of the leak to risk contempt of court in defending that person’s anonymity. But he is waging a mighty war against the website and there is little in the law to restrain him.

There is little to protect the staff of Save the Children, either, whom immigration minister Scott Morrison has referred to the federal police over leaks regarding the treatment of asylum seekers in offshore camps.

Under new security legislation, there will be even fewer protections for whistleblowers concerned by the country’s most clandestine organisations – ASIO and ASIS – or for the journalists who report on them.

We live in an age of leaks, an age of new transparencies being forced on governments. But Abbott and his frontbench are bent on secrecy. This is a country that punishes honesty and disclosure, and it is worse for it. That a young woman might go to prison for drawing attention to a secret scholarship won by the prime minister’s daughter – awarded on merit, though it was – is an appalling fact.

Whistleblowers are so named because they draw attention to misuse and excess and corruption. They allow society to function more openly and more effectively. As Suelette Dreyfus, co-author of a report that shows Australia lags behind the US and Britain and many other G20 nations on whistleblower protection, said: “Whistleblowing is a kind of collective moral conscience. It’s quite a cost-effective way for stopping things like fraud in companies and in governments.”

Expensive and vicious secrecy, however, is the preference of this government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 25, 2014 as "Whistling tricksy".

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