The former Coalition government spent almost $6m prosecuting Bernard Collaery, Witness K, Richard Boyle and David McBride over their actions in exposing wrongdoing and misconduct, new data shows.
Figures provided to the Guardian show the costs of the prosecutions has almost doubled in two years, leaving taxpayers with an exorbitant legal bill well before the cases have reached trial.
By March, the government had spent $4.42m on the external legal costs associated with the prosecutions of Witness K and Collaery, whose actions helped expose Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste during commercial negotiations over access to resources in the Timor Sea.
The legal bill for the prosecutions is growing by $1m a year on average, and has increased from $2.47m in mid-2020.
The cost of the prosecution of McBride – a former military lawyer prosecuted for a leak that informed an ABC series on Australian war crimes – has now reached $1.3m.
The case against Boyle, a former tax official, has now cost taxpayers $76,747. Boyle was charged with a string of offences after helping an ABC investigation into aggressive tactics employed by the taxation office to recover debts.
The external costs to the commonwealth total $5.8m. That figure includes the cost of the Australian government solicitor and external legal services such as counsel fees and legal disbursement costs. It also includes payments to external counsel brought in by commonwealth prosecutors, though it excludes the internal staffing costs of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) staff working on the cases.
In mid-2020, the cost of the four cases was about $3m.
The trials of Collaery, McBride, and Boyle are still months away.
Collaery is due to face trial in October, though his lawyers have protested the setting of a trial date while appeals they consider important to his defence are still active.
Boyle has a hearing on his attempt to use whistleblower protections next month, before facing a criminal trial in October, if there are charges remaining.
McBride is also attempting to use whistleblower protections in his case, and his trial has been repeatedly delayed.
Outgoing senator Rex Patrick said the costs to taxpayers were unacceptable and must be acted upon by the new government.
“The Morrison government has spent nearly $6m on these prosecutions, which are sadly and wrongly directed at the whistleblower instead of the perpetrators,” he said.
“The Albanese government must end these costly prosecutions, which are not in the public interest. Confidence must be restored in the ability for people to blow the whistle.”
Patrick wrote to the new Albanese government last month, urging it to drop the prosecution of Collaery.
The cases have prompted renewed criticism of the state of Australia’s government whistleblower protections and the former government’s failure to adopt a 2017 inquiry recommendation to establish a dedicated whistleblower protection agency.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act, which protects government whistleblowers, has lagged badly behind corporate whistleblower laws, which were reformed in 2019.
In response to the concerns, attorney general Mark Dreyfus told the ABC that the government would “closely examine” the current protections to ensure their adequacy.
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said the almost $6m legal bill was “absolutely extraordinary”. Pender said the government had the power to drop the prosecutions at any time.
“Whistleblowers should be protected, not punished,” he said. “Every day that the prosecutions of Bernard Collaery, David McBride and Richard Boyle drag on is another day where democracy in this country is being damaged.”