Further Calls to Drop the Political Prosecution of Bernard Collaery

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Collaery prosecution truck

The ACT Bar Association released a 1 July statement, in which it calls on the Morrison government to reconsider continuing the prosecution of prominent Canberra barrister Bernard Collaery over his part in exposing the 2004 Timor-Leste bugging affair.

Representing practising barristers in the capital territory, the ACT Bar Association outlined that 76-year-old Collaery is a former territory deputy chief minister and attorney general, who has provided counsel on numerous high-profile cases.

The statement further maintains that it’s “difficult to identify any public, as opposed to political, interest in continuing this prosecution”, as the illegal spying operation happened 17 years ago, while a related ASIO-AFP raid on Collaery’s home occurred eight years ago.

“Because of the nature of the allegations, the charges brought against Bernard Collaery can only be pursued with the consent of the attorney general,” the statement explains.

However, when this consent was sought in September 2015, then AG George Brandis declined to provide any agreement to pursue the prosecution, and it wasn’t until after Christian Porter replaced him in late 2017, that the new chief lawmaker determined to prosecute the lawyer in May 2018.


Under then foreign minister Alexander Downer, the alleged bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet room was carried out by ASIS, with the agent now referred to as Witness K in charge.

The operation’s aim was to provide the Howard government with the upper hand in lucrative oil and gas treaty negotiations. This unethical arrangement benefited Australian resource company Woodside. 

After learning that his former superior, Downer, had taken a position with Woodside following his retirement from politics, K went to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security in 2008 to discuss an ASIS promotion dispute, which included the details of the bugging operation.

The IGIS recommended that K speak to ASIS-approved lawyer Collaery, who determined that the bugging was illegal. And in 2013, when K was about to join Collaery in the Netherlands to testify against Australia in the Hague in relation to the spying operation, ASIO raided both men’s homes.

With Porter’s approval, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions charged both Collaery and Witness K on 30 May 2018, with conspiring to reveal classified information, under section 39 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (Cth).

Speaking truth to power

ACT Magistrate Glenn Theakston sentenced Witness K to a three month suspended sentence, after the Vietnam War navy veteran and decorated ASIS officer decided to plead guilty to the charge laid against him, bringing his drawn out persecution to a close.

“As far as I am concerned, the charge against K means that it’s a crime to report a crime,” Collaery told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in April last year. “Think about it. That’s Australia at present.”

For his part, Collaery has resolved to fight his charge, and he has also appealed the national security order that has placed closed court provisions upon his case, which means much of his trial will be conducted beyond the scrutiny of the public or the press.

In a statement last December, ACT Bar Association president Andrew Muller said his organisation “earnestly petitions the government to reconsider its priorities and the message it is sending both here and overseas by its prosecution of a fundamentally good man, a good citizen, a good lawyer and a champion of democracy.”

Photo supplied by the Alliance Against Political Prosecutions

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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