New protections for whistleblowers
Up until very recently in Australia, doing the right thing when your employer is doing the wrong thing has been difficult. What new protections are offered to Australian whistleblowers?
Those brave enough to blow the whistle on bad behaviour have variously lost their jobs, been litigated against and been victimised by individuals and businesses that collectively boast far greater resources than the whistleblower could ever hope for.
A 2017 paper by the Australian arm of Transparency International, the global coalition against corruption, said whistleblowers play a key role in exposing otherwise unknown acts of corruption. But the problems with being a whistleblower were enormous. They included:
- Legal protections for business and civil society whistleblowers were almost non-existent.
- Government legislation for the protection of whistleblowers was incomplete and out of date.
- Existing legislation offered little protection, support or remedies for whistleblowers.
- Organisations had no models on which to base best-practice facilitation of whistleblowing.
- Whistleblowers faced a lack of independent advice, legal and otherwise.
Changes afoot in Australia
But in February 2019, that all changed. The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018 was passed by the House of Representatives and now becomes law.
Specifically, the new Bill amends the Corporations Act 2001 and the Tax Administration Act 1953 to allow protections for whistleblowers in the corporate and financial sectors and also in the area of non-compliance around tax laws.
What are the specifics of the amendments? In a report on the topic, BDO Australia’s Michael Cassidy, National Leader, Forensic Services, made a detailed summary.
- Expand whistleblower category to include former officers, employees, suppliers and associates of the entity, including family members.
- Allow anonymous disclosure.
- Expand the scope of the conduct that may be disclosed under protection and the range of people the whistleblower may make their disclosure to.
- Eliminate the motivation of a whistleblower as a determination of whether they qualify for protection
- Better protection of whistleblower identity and immunity.
- Expand protection in general for whistleblowers, from retaliation and redress, including improved access to compensation.
Importantly, the new legislation, “imposes on public companies and large proprietary companies a requirement to have a whistleblower policy,” explained Michael.
This must include policies containing information about whistleblower protection and fair treatment, and it must be made available to any person who may be an eligible whistleblower in or around the company.
Ensuring support for the legislation
In order to support the new whistleblowing protections, ASIC has created an Office of the Whistleblower to ensure it handles properly any information it receives.
This includes the allocation of a Whistleblower Liaison Officer to be a single point of ongoing contact for any whistleblower who might come forward, and to oversee the handling of the related content across all ASIC teams.
Australia now boasts one of the strongest whistleblower protection frameworks in the world and that can only be a positive for the business environment and the economy. A late-2018 research paper called Whistleblowing: New Rules, New Policy, New Vision, released by Griffith University in partnership with Australian National University, The University of Sydney, RMIT University and the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, said whistleblowing is critically important in the life of organisations.
Employee reporting, the study revealed, led to positive investigation outcomes in 55.5% of cases and positive organisational reforms in 58.2% of cases.
This was in an environment with very little whistleblower protection, so it was no surprise that those employees who raised the alarm said they experienced negative repercussions in 81.6% of cases.
The new laws should boost the positive outcome percentage and dramatically reduce the negative repercussions for whistleblowers. That’s a win for everybody who’s on the right side of the law.
About the author
Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.