HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.33 pm]: Members will be aware that I have a significant interest in matters of integrity, transparency and accountability. They are essential characteristics of any healthy democracy. I have spoken before in this place about the need for donations reform and press freedoms, as well as ensuring that we appropriately fund our oversight bodies and the State Records Office of Western Australia and monitor the extraordinary powers of bodies such as the Corruption and Crime Commission. Tonight I am going to speak about whistleblowers in particular to raise concerns about the treatment of whistleblowers. We know that whistleblowing can be defined simply as the disclosure by employees or other organisation members of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers to persons or organisations that may be able to effect action. We know that whistleblowing, and the protection of whistleblowers, is central to robust and effective public integrity and regulatory systems.
I was particularly interested in an Australian report released last month that presents the findings from the world’s first large-scale research into whistleblowing. That report said that whistleblowing processes, or systems for encouraging and protecting staff who speak up about wrongdoing, are vital to achieving integrity, good governance and freedom from corruption in institutions across the world. The research also found that employer reporting is seen as the single most important method by which wrongdoing by organisations is brought to light. That is a very significant finding. Despite what I think is a fairly common myth that whistleblowers’ concerns are often vexatious or unsubstantiated, the research found—it included 118 public sector agencies—that there were high substantiation rates from investigations of issues that were reported by employees, with 63 per cent of cases resulting in positive organisational change.
We know that whistleblowing provides an essential underpinning to ethical behaviour. It is often the only way we hear about wrongdoing inside organisations. It is important that members reflect on the fact that the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse all came about in large part through the existence and bravery of whistleblowers. We also know that public whistleblowing is very rare. Even when whistleblowers feel forced to go outside their organisation, they rarely decide to go straight to the media. That same study I mentioned earlier also found that only 16 per cent of whistleblowers ever went to an external regulatory body; only two per cent raised concerns outside their organisation, including members of Parliament, in the first instance; and only one per cent of whistleblowers ever went directly to a journalist, a media organisation or a public website, and even then, they tended to do so only after trying internal or regulatory channels first. That shows there is far less external disclosure than we want or need if we really expect corporate and government wrongdoing to be identified and properly addressed.
The question that we need to ask is: why are these statistics so low? It is important that we do not try to deceive ourselves into thinking that the present system offers adequate protection for individuals who, in good conscience, raise issues that are absolutely in the public interest, because I think clearly it does not. Not only are the current protections and support provided to whistleblowers woefully inadequate, but also we are now finding that our laws are being used to pursue and persecute people. Every member in this place should be absolutely horrified at the treatment of witness K, Bernard Collaery and David McBride, and that is just to name a few recent cases. Richard Boyle, the ATO whistleblower, is staring at 160 years behind bars for disclosing concerns about oppressive debt collection by the ATO. Boyle followed correct procedures. He initially made an internal disclosure statement under the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Then, when the ATO dismissed it, he went public. Due to this, he found himself being raided by the Australian Federal Police and now his freedom is being threatened. This sends a chilling message to potential whistleblowers. Where is the public interest in prosecuting this case? Our current whistleblower protections are possibly worse than having none, in that people like Richard Boyle may be lured into making disclosures only to experience possibly the most terrible reprisal available.
Failings at the national level are obviously central to this issue. However, although WA might lack some of the high-profile cases of other jurisdictions, we need to note that by no means are we tracking well in this space. Research in 2016 ranked Western Australia below Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria in the strength of our whistleblowing processes. A recent blueprint for reform that was published by Griffith University and Transparency International notes the importance of policing detrimental action that is taken against whistleblowers and recommends that all jurisdictions establish a properly resourced whistleblower protection authority. Such an authority would provide not only advice, support and referrals, but also expert monitoring and oversight of responses to disclosures, and active protection, including investigations into detriment, compensation and civil penalty actions. The draft report also recommends, among other things, compensation, reward and support schemes for whistleblowers. Whistleblowers often pay a terrible personal price for doing the right thing. When those in power are raiding media offices and threatening whistleblowers with multiple lifetimes in jail, we know that our democracy is in real trouble. I do not know whether any members watched the recent ABC Four Corners investigation into the pursuit of whistleblower Witness K. After I had finished watching that, I was very angry and distressed. I want to refer to a particularly important quote by Andrew Wilkie. He said in that interview —
I fear we are living in very dangerous times in Australia. There is clearly a reduction in civil liberties. Whistleblowers are being pursued in the courts. Journalists are being raided. I would characterise it as being in a pre–police state, which left unchecked, will get even worse, and one day we’ll wake up and wonder how we got here.
We absolutely cannot be complacent about this. Transparency International noted —
Our national integrity system would simply not work, without voters to hold parliamentarians to account, citizens to assert their rights if treated unfairly, ethical public servants and private sector employees to speak up or provide evidence about wrongdoing, and media capable of reporting on accountability issues of public interest.
I add that we need to make sure that we have strident and effective oversight, particularly of agencies that have been entrusted with extraordinary powers. We know that whistleblowing is essential to democracy. As members of Parliament, we also need to be mindful of the need to play our part in protecting whistleblowers who come to us. One of the first steps we need to take in doing that is to ensure that we maintain the integrity of our own data. We need to ensure that, to start with, all our emails are brought back into the purview of Parliament.