Bill: Evidence [Journalist] Amendment Bill (2nd Reading)


Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 11:07 ): I am very pleased to be able to speak on the Evidence (Journalists) Amendment Bill. I have been looking forward to the opportunity to speak on this matter all morning, as a matter of fact, and I am very pleased that we have the opportunity today to debate it. At the last election, the Liberal Party had a very clear position in support of an open society through shield laws, which was part of our manifesto and our commitments that we made to the people of South Australia. These shield laws are a concept that is understood in relation to the protections that journalists have in relation to protecting their sources, and this bill deals directly with that matter this morning. I commend it to the house. I urge all members to consider it.

A similar piece of legislation was put forward to the parliament in 2013 and it was blocked at that time by the Labor government. I have not taken the opportunity to check the detail of the Hansard from the Legislative Council debate of this matter, but I understand that the Labor Party as yet has not changed its position and the Labor Party still opposes shield laws that will protect journalists and protect the free and open debate and the conduct of that debate that shield laws would entail. We have seen journalists go to prison in this country. We have seen journalists put their principle of protecting their sources ahead of their own personal interests in the past. Without wanting to reflect on any individual case, I do not think that it serves the people of South Australia or indeed the people of our country particularly well to force them to be in that position.

I turn to the Liberal commitments made to the people of South Australia, and in particular the Leader of the Opposition, who at the last election said, 'People who alert the media to important public issues embody the core values of an open society.' That is something that we value. That is something that we want, and whether it be for our public servants who are blowing the whistle on a case of intolerable corruption or abuse of public process, there are a number of remedies that they may seek to take leaving themselves exposed to varying degrees of intimidation or varying degrees of victimisation from then on as they seek to redress a wrong that they see.

It is a time-honoured practice: there are cases when the appropriate course they see is to shine the disinfectant of sunlight onto an issue and to bring it to the attention of the public, and going to a journalist is often the way forward that they see. As we have seen, and as the member for Bragg has so eloquently described, journalists are often then at risk of their own personal freedom being taken if they seek to protect that source.

The Liberal commitment went further in our document at the 2014 election, and I just wish to quote a couple of paragraphs from it. Under the heading, Protecting the Public Interest, it states:

To maintain a healthy, open society, we need a free media. Journalists and media outlets hold interest groups, companies and government to account. They do this by publishing important information from a range of sources, many who risk their own wellbeing to expose information in the public interest.

If journalists are not able to provide their sources with assurance of anonymity, it is likely that critical information benefiting the public will not be passed on. This damages public debate, hides corruption and undermines accountability.

Again, I identify that sunlight is the best disinfectant because it not only brings to light those issues which are potentially currently subject to corruption, it not only exposes to public scrutiny those who are protecting themselves under veils of opaque public policy that protects them from scrutiny, not only does it deal with those potential current perpetrators who have the public interest furthest from their hearts and their own interest closest, it also acts as a disincentive to future perpetrators and it acts as discouragement if people know that they are likely to get exposed. If they are more likely to get exposed then it is far less likely that they will test the boundaries.

I think that a robust public debate is an excellent method of ensuring that people who might seek to otherwise corrupt the process are less likely to do so and are more likely to be caught. This bill will enhance the opportunity for journalists and the media to participate in that very important process. Continuing then on the topic of shield laws, in opposition, the Liberal Party's manifesto at the last election described:

Shield laws have been used internationally and around Australia to provide protection to people who engage journalists. As a matter of law, sh i e ld laws provide that source-to-journalist communication is privileged and journalistic source identity is protected. Despite the growing popularity of shield laws across Australia as state and federal governments recognise the need to protect journalistic privileges, South Australia still has no such protections in place.

The policy document went on to say:

Journalists, media professionals and the public have expressed concerns at the lack of legal protections for the anonymous journalist sources . The S tate Liberals believe that these concerns are well-founded, and is acting to ensure that shield laws are introduced in South Australia.

I note that the document said 'is acting' but, of course, if the Speaker, the member for Croydon, were in the chair he would be very quick to point out the plural is appropriate. The document continues:

Shield laws will ensure that journalists are not compelled by government, courts or powerful companies to reveal their sources or give away the origin of their information.

Journalists will only be compelled to reveal their sources if the case fails the 'public interest test': where the public interest in revealing the information outweighs the potential detriment to the source; for example, if a journalist has information about a threat to public safety.

Our commitment to shield laws is part of our Justice Action Agenda to ensure a fair, accountable government and transparent society. Shield laws support the media's legitimate role in uncovering often difficult evidence and then using that to hold the powerful to account.

That was the commitment we took to the last election. That was the commitment we undertook to implement had we, the Liberal Party, been elected to government, as of course a significant majority of the South Australian people attempted to do through their votes—90,000 more than supported the current government.

That was the scrutiny to which we were willing to be held because we support robust debate and the media has an incredibly important role in that debate. Their sources are important, and it is important they be protected. Earlier, I identified that a number of journalists have been willing to go to gaol to protect their sources, but that is not even the point. The fact that they are under threat of that prevents sources from coming forward to media in many examples. We want this to encourage robust debate, so this bill is worthy of support.

I hope the government will reconsider its position because, just as the Liberal Party—had it been elected to government—was willing to be scrutinised by a media emboldened by shield laws, I think this government should show that it has the courage and the confidence in its own performance to equally submit itself to the increased scrutiny of the robust fourth estate emboldened by shield laws, emboldened by protections such as this bill would create.

What do they have to fear? Surely a government that thinks it is worth its salt, a government that has any sort of courage in its own credibility will have nothing to fear from shield laws protecting journalists who are reasonably undertaking their duties. I am not talking about any danger to the public interest here; I am not talking about anything that is going to put the public at risk in any way. We are talking about journalists having reasonable protections.

As the member for Bragg outlined, we have a very secret ICAC in South Australia, the most secretive ICAC provisions in the country, so we want to make sure that those who wish in the public interest to blow the whistle on poor behaviour, maladministration or corruption and wish to bring that to public exposure, using sunlight as the best disinfectant, have the courage to do so. I commend the bill to the house. I commend the member for Bragg for her presentation and the Hon. Andrew McLachlan for bringing the bill forward.