Australia should reconsider weak whistleblower protections, civil liberties council says

Australia should reconsider weak whistleblower protections, civil liberties council says
Image: Richard Boyle is seen outside the Magistrates Court in Adelaide, Tuesday, July 30, 2019.



Civil liberties advocates are calling for stronger protections after Australian Taxation Office (ATO) whistleblower Richard Boyle lost his appeal to secure immunity from prosecution. 

The former debt collector accused the ATO of aggressively pursuing debts from small businesses, which he said was destroying lives and causing unnecessary trauma in order to meet revenue goals.

Boyle is accused of 24 offences, including using a mobile phone to take pictures of taxpayers’ information and secretly recording conversations with colleagues. He had sought to rely on the Public Interest Disclosure Act, the whistleblowing law for public servants, to shield him from a criminal trial.

The matter will likely now go back to the South Australian District Court, where Boyle is expected to face trial in September. If convicted, he could face up to 46 years in prison.

“Ineffective” whistleblower protections 

According to the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL), that Boyle’s whistleblowing does not attract protection raises concerns that existing protections for whistleblowers are “ineffective”.

President of NSWCCL Lydia Shelly said that under existing laws, whistleblowers remain vulnerable to criminal prosecutions and serious consequences if they disclose classified information.

“The Council has long standing concerns that criminal prosecutions of potential or actual whistleblowers will create a chilling effect on individuals disclosing information which is in the public interest,” she said.

“Historically, whistleblowers have played an important role in functioning and healthy democracies,” she continued. “Many egregious misuses of power have been brought to the surface by the courageous actions of whistleblowers and have shaped the social, cultural and legal responses not only of our nation, but by the international community.”
“The criminal prosecution of potential and actual whistleblowers raises serious questions regarding Australia’s transparency and culture of accountability, as well as the role of individual citizens being important safeguards of our democracy.”

What needs to be done

In conversation with City Hub, NSWCCL Treasurer Stephen Blanks said “there needs to be procedures available, and easily available, for public servants to be able to make appropriate disclosures.”

In regards to Australia’s weak protections for whistleblowers and what more could be done, Blanks stated that though there is a specialty protection put in place, it simply just doesn’t work.

“So what needs to be done is for the level of protection offered to whistleblowers in the existing statute to be expanded in situations where the protection is available,” he said.

“Fundamental workings of a free society and democracy require that there be appropriate protections for whistleblowers. And it just is not the case in Australia that that protection exists.”

Boyle’s trial highlights the need for law reform to make it easier for whistleblowers, continued Blanks. 

“It’s one of those situations where governments, regardless of political persuasion, have a strong interest in preventing whistleblowing and not supporting whistleblowing.”

“And so we have a political system and process where the elected representatives are actually incentivised to act against the public interest and that is the problem.”

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