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Friday, September 11, 2009

A little FOI and whistleblower history passes

Malcolm Brown wrote of the funeral of journalist Basil Sweeney in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, noting his involvement in the Phillip Arantz story of 1971 when then Sergeant Arantz in charge of the NSW Police computer unit gave crime statistics to Sweeney showing crime clear-up rates were far lower than officially stated.

Arantz acted after bringing to the attention of the top echelon that incorrect statistics showing the Police were winning in cleaning up major crime had been tabled in Parliament, and that Parliament had been misled. No action was taken, Arantz gave the true stats to Sweeney and his life changed forever- taken into custody as the Herald hit the streets, declared insane by the Police medico, detained at Prince Henry Hospital for three days, charged with release of information without authorisation, dismissed from the force- while top cops and the ministers of the day stayed on and continued to reap ill-gotten gains.

The Arantz story was page 1 Chapter 1 in a 1972 book "Secrecy:Political Censorship in Australia" by a newly graduated law student who argued that Westminster style accountability as practiced in this country meant the public right to know was entirely in the hands of ministers and public servants who could virtually tell us anything they liked, and woe betide anyone who tried to tell the truth when it was inconvenient to the powers that be. The book put Freedom of Information and whistleblower protection on the agenda as the author Jim Spigelman, joined the staff of Federal Labor Leader Gough Whitlam who became Prime Minister in December 1972, with a commitment to reform. It took a while. Whitlam was long gone when a Commonwealth FOI Act came into force in 1982. Adequate whistleblower protection is still being discussed. The draconian Section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act is still on the books, injustice to Allan Kessing remains a disgrace.His Honour James Spigelman is now Chief Justice of NSW.

Arantz died in March 1998. Brown recounted his story in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. Repeated below because it's a reminder of the importance of laws that protect the right to know and individuals brave enough to stand and be counted. (From The Whistle May 1998 Whistleblowers Australia)

"He will go down in history as the archetypal whistleblower.

It was late in 1971 when the then Detective Sergeant Philip Neville Arantz decided he had had enough of the official deception -- the annual announcement of ridiculously high crime clear-up rates. He was determined the public should know the truth.

Mr Arantz, who died yesterday at Dubbo Base Hospital at the age of 68, created history when, through the agency of journalist Basil Sweeney, he had official figures published in The Sydney Morning Herald showing reported crime in 1971 was 75 per cent above the figures for 1970. The difference was so huge that it could not be explained by a crime wave.

Mr Arantz had pioneered computerisation in the NSW Police Force and headed the computer unit. But the Premier, Sir Robert Askin -- backed by the Police Commissioner Mr Norman Allan -- blustered.

Mr Arantz was immediately identified as the "leak," certified mentally sick by the Police Medical Officer, Dr A.A. Vane, and frog-marched on the day of the Herald story to a psychiatric hospital where he was kept for three days. The psychiatric report said there was "no evidence of psychosis ... an intelligent man with some obsessional traits, but they are not out of control and in the interview he was at all times alert, rational and showed appropriate effort".

Suspended without pay on December 7, Mr Arantz was charged with departmental misconduct for refusing to answer questions and on January 20, 1972, he was dismissed from the police force with no pension.

His appeal was unanimously dismissed by the Crown Employees Appeal Board. The then Opposition Leader, Neville Wran, referred to Mr Arantz as "this honest man".

Figures were later tabled in Parliament indicating Mr Arantz's version of crime rates was the true one, but he was out in the cold. Sir Robert let it be known that the NSW Government would regard any company that used his services as having committed "an unfriendly act".

Mr Arantz, father of three boys (one deceased) and three girls, stood as an Independent for the NSW Parliament and even contemplated bidding for appointment as police commissioner.

The incoming Wran Government in 1976 was less fervent in support of him than it had been in opposition. But when the Deputy Police Commissioner, Mr Bill Allen, was allowed to retire in disgrace in 1982 on the pension of a first-class sergeant, the unfair treatment of Mr Arantz produced a howl of outrage.

In 1985, the Wran Government paid him $250,000. He was finally cleared by special legislation, allowing him notional reinstatement in 1989. With his victory behind him, Mr Arantz retired to Dunedoo in mid-western NSW, and in 1993 published his story, Collusion of Powers."

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