A legal challenge to the confidentiality of information involved in the lawsuit against a lawyer for representing the whistleblower, Witness K itself will be kept secret.
On Monday, the ACT appeals court opened a two-day hearing on Bernard Collaery’s appeal, but closed the court to the public in five minutes due to the requirements of the National Security Information Act.
Independent human rights and labor lawyers criticized the secrecy involved in the case, as well as its cost.
The community is suing Witness K and Collaery, his former lawyer, for disseminate information about the government of Timor-Leste’s listening buildings in 2004, an operation that gave Australia an edge in negotiations to separate resources in the Timor Sea.
Witness K has signaled the intention to plead guilty but Collaery is fighting the charges. The details of the case and the evidence are shrouded in secrecy, as the government considered them secret under the NSI Act.
ACT’s supreme court initially maintained the confidentiality of that information, which Collaery has now appealed.
On Monday, the president of ACT, Helen Murrell, noted that the appeal would begin with a request to provide further evidence and then asked the parties’ opinion on the closure of the court to the public.
Bret Walker, Collaery’s lawyer, noted that he was not applying to do so, but was “afraid” of closing the court to be required by the NSI Act, adding that he “[regrets] the appearance of it ”.
The court remained closed for the remainder of Monday’s hearing and – as the first instance appeal – will not be reopened to the public.
Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Center, said that “the lawsuit against Bernard Collaery and the secrecy surrounding him is wrong and undemocratic”.
“We should protect whistleblowers, not punish them,” he said.
“Hiding this case in secret only exacerbates the injustice that is being done. The NSI Act has been violated and must be amended to better protect the public interest in transparency. “
Pender said the attorney general’s decision on secret information would allow the government to “admit in court that it spied Timor-Leste, although it refuses to admit it publicly ”.
“The NSI Law mocks open justice, a vital democratic principle.”
Throughout the case, Collaery presented a series of subpoenas to intelligence and defense agencies and corporations, including multinational giant Woodside, which is expected to profit significantly from the deal eventually struck by Australia and Timor-Leste.
The community resisted the release of documents, citing a public interest immunity claim, which includes a claim that their disclosure would harm Australia’s international relations.
Before the court hearing, the three Canberra-based Labor MPs and Senator Katy Gallagher issued a statement contesting the treatment of Collaery and Witness K.
They asked the government to “explain why it is in the public interest to continue these processes”.
“In trying to effectively prevent Mr. Collaery from choosing his own lawyer to close courts and postpone tactics, the Morrison government has gone to absurd extremes to pursue these cases,” they said.
“The new attorney general must do what her predecessor did not: explain to the Australian people why it is in the public interest to pursue these processes, which have already cost taxpayers nearly $ 4 million.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said earlier that “the process against a whistleblower, for what is a shameful part of Australia’s history, is simply wrong”.
Parliamentarians crossbench, including Rex Patrick, the Greens and Andrew Wilkie called on the government to completely withdraw the lawsuits.