Australia to lead world in protecting whistleblowers: Griffith expert

Professor AJ Brown with Senator Nick Xenophon
Professor AJ Brown with Senator Nick Xenophon

Australia can become a world leader in protecting whistleblowers if reforms recommended by a parliamentary inquiry are made law, according to a Griffith University expert.

Professor A J Brown, from Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, said reforms suggested by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Corporations and Financial Services will mark “a historic step” in protecting those who speak out against wrongdoing in the workplace.

Research led by Professor Brown was cited heavily throughout the inquiry’s report, which looked at whistleblower protections in the corporate, public and not-for-profitsectors.

The recommendations were a “comprehensive approach” to better protecting employees who blow the whistle on misconduct, corrupt or illegal behaviour, Professor Brown said.

“Whistleblowers play a crucial role in a well-functioning society,” he said.

“Whistleblower protection is not just about justice. It’s also about recognising the best way for modern organisations and regulators to know when they’ve got problems, before they turn into even bigger ones.

Trust issue

“Stronger whistleblower protection is also, fundamentally, about how business and government can earn the public’s trust by showing they can get their first response to whistleblowers right.”

Professor Brown, who gave extensive evidence to the inquiry, said it had proposed a “sweeping, but simple” overhaul based on a “wide-ranging package” of reforms.

A key recommendation is protecting private sector employees who report breaches of professional codes and standards, as well as breaches of law, internally, to regulatory agencies, or publicly if enforcement agencies fail to act.

A second important recommendation is to establish a Whistleblower Protection Authority, to replace the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s role for public servants who blow the whistle, as well as making protections real for the corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

The Authority would have far-reaching powers but most importantly, provide tangible support to whistleblowers and also help business understand and implement ‘best practice’.

Bounty reward system

The report also proposes giving the authority the power to award whistleblowers a percentage of penalties or fines imposed for the wrongdoing they reveal. Common in the United States, such a reward system had twice previously been rejected in Australia.

The federal inquiry followed a series of scandals in corporate Australia, particularly in the financial planning industry.

Previous research from Professor Brown and colleagues from the University of Melbourne, Blueprint for Free Speech and Transparency International, which was used to structure much of the analysis in the Committee’s report, examined whistleblower protection laws in the G20 countries.

It found Australia’s protections for private sector workers were “considerably weaker” than for public servants and, in some areas, on a par with countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Professor Brown, who leads the Whistling While They Work 2 project, the nation’s largest research project on whistleblowing, said the latest results from the project proved change was needed.

“So far in the 38 organisations we have surveyed most recently, only 44 per cent of employees among the more than 11,000 individual respondents were confident something would be done if they reported wrongdoing — even when employees, managers and governance staff all agree that employee reporting is the most important means of bringing wrongdoing to light,” he said.

Professor AJ Brown launches Whistling While They Work 2

“And for some organisations that confidence falls to under 20 per cent… although the good news is that for others, it also rises to much higher levels, showing best practice is possible.”

Professor Brown said the recommended changes could see Australia “leapfrog a lot of countries” in the strength and effectiveness of whistleblower laws, with a significant improvement in protecting private sector employees in particular.

Long overdue

“I think there is an acceptance across business that these reforms are long overdue – some of these solutions were suggested as far back as 1994,” Professor Brown said.

“They will help all organisations know where they really stand when it comes to their integrity and reporting culture.

“We’re proud to see our research shaping these policies, and demonstrating the power of good research to create tangible and valuable change.”

A second federal inquiry released on Wednesday also urged the Federal Government to heed the results of another Australian Research Council Linkage Project led by Professor Brown, ‘Strengthening Australia’s National Integrity System’, when it reports in 2019 on the question of whether Australia should establish a National Integrity Commission.