The term whistleblower originally meant to stop foul play, as on the sports field. In the 1930s in the US the term took a negative turn - becoming the equivalent of a "snitch" - before growing in public esteem over subsequent decades.
In Australia, whistleblowers have rarely found favour with the public or authorities. Federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie quit his job with the Office of National Assessments, in 2003, to publicly question the government's justifications for the Iraq War. He says whistleblowers here are and have always been treated appallingly. "Maybe whistleblowers are seen to be dobbing on their mates or letting the team down.''
An online survey in 2012, commissioned by Griffith and Melbourne universities, found 81 per cent of those surveyed consider it more important to support whistleblowers for revealing serious wrongdoing in organisations than to punish them. Yet only 53 per cent of respondents saw it as "generally acceptable" for people to speak up about serious wrongdoing if it meant revealing inside information.
The dogged pursuit of Allan Kessing reflects such a culture, in part. The former customs officer was convicted under the Crimes Act in 2007 for leaking two damning reports on lax security at Sydney Airport.
Kessing, who maintains he did not leak the reports to The Australian, was given a nine-month suspended sentence. That his revelations prompted an inquiry and a $200 million upgrade in airport security has not convinced the Labor government to pardon him, despite speaking in his favour while in opposition.
It is hoped the passage of new whistleblower protection laws by the Federal Parliament, in June will offer greater security to future whistleblowers. But the exclusion of intelligence agencies and some politicians from its ambit means the fate awaiting many whistleblowers here remains up in the air.
Meanwhile Snowden sits somewhere in a 1.6-kilometre airport transit corridor, wondering when his flight will end. He has not been seen in many days. That Sheremetyevo Airport boasts a new counselling service for passengers suffering pre-flight jitters is little consolation. For now, at least, he is going nowhere.
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