Australia is on the verge of passing laws which would allow journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources and paves the way for tougher legislation to protect whistleblowers.

25 Oct 2010 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 2:09 PM

Australia is on the verge of passing laws which would allow journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources, while paving the way for tougher legislation to protect whistleblowers.

The laws are being debated in the House of Representatives, but there is almost certainly unanimous support for the private member's bill introduced by former whistleblower Mr Andrew Wilkie.

Australian journalists currently risk being sent to prison for contempt of court if they refuse to name a source.

Whistleblowers are frequently penalised, ostracised and sometimes taken to court one for revealing alleged wrongdoing within government departments and large organisations.

As a former intelligence official, Mr Wilkie spoke out publicly against the Iraq war, and says Australia ridicules and marginalise its whistleblowers instead of protecting them.

The independent MP from Tasmania says the law is based on the premise that every member of the community has a fundamental right to free speech.

Mr Wilkie says people become whistleblowers for all sorts of reason and are often labelled troublemakers or misfits but are generally good people doing their best.

"Whistleblowers have an important role to play . Obviously they reveal misconduct, and often they do that from privileged positions behind closed doors from where there is next to no hope that the normal processes of government and administration will spot and report on that misconduct," Wilkie said.

"In other words whistleblowers are an essential safeguard of the public interest which needs to be recognised as such," he added.

There have been a number of high profile whistleblower cases in Australia, including the Queensland nurse who lifted the lid on the wrongful practices of Queensland surgeon Jayant Patel.

Federal Attorney General Mr Robert McClelland has welcomed the move to introduce the new law, saying there is a real need for change.

In 2007 two journalists, Mr Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, faced the prospect of jail terms for refusing to disclose the source of a story about a government plan to cut war veterans' benefits.

They were eventually found to be in contempt of court and fined seven-thousand dollars.

Mr McClelland says journalists need to be able to protect their sources in the best interests of the nation.

"There is no doubt that journalists play an important role in our society by providing the community with access to information that is in the public interest. And the press must given freedom to perform that role effectively," Mr McClelland said.

That freedom may be undermined where journalists are not confident that they can protect the identity of their sources without being held in contempt of court," Mr McClelland said.

A similar bill has been introduced into the Senate by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon and is expected to pass the upper house unapposed.

Mr Wilkie says the almost certainly unanimous support for the bill is an encouraging sign for Australian democracy.

"This is I think a tremendous situation we have here where the members of the government the opposition and the crossbenches are all working cooperatively to progress a bill which is genuinely in the public interest . And I think it signal what can be achieved in this place when legislation in the public interest comes in here," Wilkie said.

The bill is expected to pass early next year.