Whistleblower asks: what would you do?

What would you do if you thought there was something terribly wrong within your own organisation?

Former army legal officer David McBride posed this question to his webinar audience last Thursday when he delivered The McBride Whistleblower Trial as part of this year’s James Cook University Law Seminar Series.

David will be sentenced on Tuesday for national security offences related to his leak of classified documents which exposed war crimes committed by Australians in Afghanistan.

“What I didn’t realise, and what you won’t realise, is that you wouldn’t really necessarily be able to complain about a big-picture thing,” he said.

He spoke of the difficulties faced by he and other whistleblowers, including Australian Tax Office employee Richard Boyle and ACT lawyer Bernard Collaery, in exposing large-scale crime.

This included detractors downplaying the seriousness of the complaint, and portraying the whistleblower “as someone who cared a bit too much about things which are not very important”.


“The thing you’re complaining about might be small but what you’re trying to say is that there are potentially very big issues here … that’s the reality of being a whistleblower,” he said.

David garnered insights into the politicisation of war through his experiences in the British and Australian armies, and as a security consultant, including stints in Northern Ireland and Africa.

He said before his second tour of Afghanistan in 2013, he knew “something very wrong was up” and the way the war was being portrayed to Australians was far from accurate.

“Things happened over there which were in some way small, at the micro level, but they were at the micro level which convinced me that the strong suspicions that I had at a higher level, a macro level, were absolutely correct,” he said.

“Now I had a hill that I could fight and die on, in the sense that everything I thought that was wrong with the organisation was clear from these small incidents.”

He said the “sham nature of visits” from then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott added to the deception, which he described as insidious.


“Everyone was told it was rosy, and yet anyone who had any common sense knew that it wasn’t, and this has been borne out many years later, funnily enough, as soon as the American airpower left, the whole edifice collapsed,” he said.

David pointed to the Brereton Report in 2020, and revelations about Ben Roberts-Smith since, as evidence of a pattern of behaviour.

“If you start a culture of lies at the top, you’ll get a culture of lies at the bottom,” he said.

He said America’s Leahy Laws, which prohibit the US from helping any nations who have credible allegations of war crimes, were a major reason the crimes continued for many years.

“Had there been a major investigation in 2013 when we were still there, it could have been possible that Australia would have had to withdraw their forces and there would have been a huge hole in both the credibility and the operational ability of the Afghan so-called war against terror,” he said.

He said there was a false assumption that complaints were made under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth) for the purpose of protection only.


“I didn’t want protection, I wanted change,” he said.

“I wanted the politicisation that was reaching down and making heroes that weren’t heroes, and making villains that weren’t villains, I wanted that to change.

“It wouldn’t have mattered, even if the death penalty was available, I wouldn’t have changed my opinion about what I believed was right.

“I don’t believe the government can ever say it’s a crime to report government crime and I think that that’s the essential element and that’s why I don’t worry too much about the wording of the particular charges, apart from the word ‘duty’ … it was exactly my duty as a legal officer to speak about potential crimes.”

David said he was “just doing my job as I was trained to do”, and would not do anything differently.

“If you’re a legal officer and you see illegal activity, it’s actually your job to do something about it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your boss, it doesn’t matter whether it’s going to be very, very difficult,” he said.


For details of other presentations in the James Cook University Law Seminar Series, visit the website.

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