'Like being king hit': How Andrew Wilkie weaponises whistleblowing (2024)

In March 2023, veteran crossbencher Andrew Wilkie — the soldier turned intelligence analyst turned whistleblower turned Greens candidate turned independent MP — used the cover of parliamentary privilege to table a set of explosive financial documents. He alleged the Hillsong Papers showed leaders of the vastly wealthy and powerful church spent donations on luxury flights, accommodation and events, which broke financial laws.

As the news made headlines around the country, Hillsong senior pastor Phil Dooley told a congregation, “It kind of feels like being king hit from behind.”

Wilkie’s long stint in Parliament has had many focuses. There’s his ongoing advocacy for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which long predates Parliament’s recent shows of support. There were his anti-pokies crusades, which made him a target of the gaming lobby and later saw him fall out with the Gillard minority government he had helped form. Prior to his election, many would recall his public opposition to the Iraq War, over which he resigned from the Office of National Assessments, calling out flawed intelligence. Younger readersmay recall his recent pig stunt with Bob Katter.

But the member for Clark has perhaps become best known in recent years for his repeated use of parliamentary privilege to put whistleblower leaks on the public record. From footage alleging Crown was tampering with poker machines and allowing the laundering of large bags of cash, to a ClubsNSW board paper showing widespread non-compliance with anti-money laundering laws, to documents alleging exporters were lying about the quality of their coal, to that cache of damning Hillsong documents (closely examined in Crikey), to accusations of serious misconduct against Melbourne Demons and the AFL, Wilkie has turned privilege into something of an art. Or, as Dooley would attest, a weapon.

Wilkie, who was first elected to his Hobart seat in 2010, didn’t come up with the idea of using privilege — the legal immunity that applies to parliamentary proceedings — for whistleblowing. But he has certainly normalised it, even if he didn’t set out to. His work with ClubsNSW whistleblower Troy Stolz helped set an important precedent, with the privileges committee later blocking ClubsNSW from accessing its correspondence, confirming that communications between whistleblowers and MPs are also protected.

“Hopefully through my work, people in the community have become more aware that they do have that option, when all else fails, to go to their MP,” says Wilkie.

He’s quick to point out, however, that “it shouldn’t need to come to that”, criticising the Albanese government for its failure to introduce proper whistleblower protections.

“If we had better regulatory agencies and law enforcement agencies in this country, better whistleblower protections, more greater media freedom enshrined in law, then it wouldn’t be left to MPs standing up in Parliament and revealing this sort of stuff.”

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender agrees: the reliance on privilege is a symptom of a broken system. But he praises Wilkie for “pioneering” this method, noting that newer independents have started following his lead. Wilkie even helped convene a parliamentary privilege training session with Pender for the crossbench following the election; other offices now reach out to Wilkie’s with questions or uncertainties.

“He’s helped to foster a new generation of crossbenchers who are ready and able to help whistleblowers,” Pender says.

That new generation of crossbenchers is the biggest Wilkie has sat among; arguably, he gets less attention than in the previous four parliaments. But the veteran independent considers the expanded crossbench a very good thing.

“Every one of them, including Bob Katter, is a thoroughly decent person,” Wilkie says, singling out his trough mate. “We’re everything from hard-left to hard-right and everything in between. But everyone on that crossbench is a very decent person with a really clear understanding of the public interest.”

“On so many issues, it’s only the crossbench who are really having a go and speaking up,” he adds, arguing that the major parties are incapable of complex discussion when it comes to Gaza. Wilkie was the only independent to vote with the Greens on a recent attempt to recognise the state of Palestine; he was one of three who joined them in on an amendment to a motion back in October, to condemn war crimes on both sides.

“I don’t agree with the Greens on some things, but I have joined them several times on votes on Gaza because it was the right thing to do,” he says. Wilkie labels last week’s bipartisan attack on the Greens, which he ran with in 2004 and 2007, “hypocritical” from the politically motivated major parties.

Wilkie may be one of 18 now. But he is the only current independent to have successfully negotiated with a minority government in a hung Parliament. It didn’t end well (though arguably better than it did for fellow indies Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott). Wilkie withdrew his support for the Gillard government in January 2012, after then prime minister Julia Gillard reneged on an agreement to implement a mandatory pre-commitment for all poker machines by 2014. Were there any lessons in it?

“I found that after I withdrew my support, I had more freedom, and I think more influence,” he reflects, especially once LNP-defector Peter Slipper resigned as speaker, tightening the numbers again. Wilkie has gone to every election since promising “no deals”, something he intends to continue (he holds his seat by the second-highest margin in the country). He says he’d vote on any confidence motion “on its merits”, noting that Clark is a left-leaning electorate. But he hasn’t given up on the idea of future opportunities at pokies reform.

“I’ve learned that to be in play, to have a central role, you don’t necessarily need to have an agreement.”

Wilkie has certainly figured out how to play a role, or more specifically how to get things on the record, with or without a balance of power.

He’s most recently spoken out in support of jailed whistleblower David McBride, who he believes has become somewhat emblematic of the government’s hostility towards transparency, notwithstanding the tangled set of motivations that led the fellow former soldier to leak in the first place.

I acknowledge it’s a more complex story than most people are aware of. I get that. But… he was the source of the information that I think the ABC used, which revealed the allegations of war crimes, but yet the first Australian citizen to front a court and to go to jail for alleged war crimes is the person that ventilated the information. I do acknowledge that his motivation for revealing that information at the start was complex. But notwithstanding that, I think he did the country a service.”

For Wilkie, a major plank of his own version of service consists of a laundry list of transparency reforms he wants to see, from serious whistleblower protections to media freedom laws — reforms that seem highly unlikely without a highly empowered crossbench.

Governments of all stripes, he surmises, “don’t like transparency. They don’t like scrutiny. They don’t like people speaking up …. And they’re very reluctant, in specific matters or system-wide, to bring in reforms that diminish their unrestrained power.”

This is an instalment ofForget the Frontbench, a column interrogating politicians who wield power beyond the major parties.

'Like being king hit': How Andrew Wilkie weaponises whistleblowing (2024)

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