Public sector complaints soar, but whistleblowers still few in number

By Stephen Easton

June 27, 2016

Whistleblowers are still exceedingly rare in Tasmania, which has seen only 26 public interest disclosures since the relevant legislation came into force in 2002, but an upward trend in complaints about the public sector — especially from within — has continued over the last year.

Acting Tasmanian Integrity Commission chief executive Michael Easton says the small number of PIDs made in Tasmania is “symptomatic of broader issues regarding organisational culture, regulatory capacity and whistleblower treatment” and hopes the TIC’s Speak Up education campaign will break down the culture of silence.

A forum about whistleblowing hosted by the TIC at the start of the month allowed Griffith University integrity expert AJ Brown to promote the expanded second iteration of the Whistling While They Work research project. Representatives attended from 10 state service agencies, two publicly owned enterprises and four councils including four agency heads. In a sneak peak at this financial year’s figures, they heard complaints from within the Tasmanian state sector had increased 35% from 71 in 2014-15 to 96 over 2015-16.

Complaints from anonymous sources (21) and the general public (68) are down a little from last year — when the TIC annual report noted it had received more complaints in total than ever before.

As it tried to drum up interest in the whistleblowing forum, the commission noted diplomatically that public interest disclosure is “a contentious topic, evoking confusion and angst, as processes are often misunderstood” while enthusing about its “great potential to assist in developing ethical workplace cultures and practices”.

The TIC’s next event on August 2 is a webinar about reinvigorating codes of conduct so they can be agents of “positive change” at agency level instead of compliance-focused standard requirements. In a similar way, the effectiveness of public interest disclosure schemes depends a lot on how they are administered at the agency level, and how disclosures and disagreements are dealt with.

Brown believes that agencies can also benefit from taking a proactive and welcoming attitude to whistleblowing through their internal frameworks, even with the most clunky and poorly designed legislation, creating a beneficial in-house system that promotes the free flow of information to improve business outcomes.

The new research project is a massive undertaking that involves 14 government bodies with some involvement in public sector integrity as partners and three more as supporters, along with researchers from four universities.

“This is the first time in history that integrity and regulatory authorities are known to have combined to approach every organisation in one country — let alone two — to get behind improved processes for effective disclosure and action against risks of public interest organisational wrongdoing, on such a comprehensive scale,” the professor said at the launch.

Despite the protection offered by PID frameworks, the experience of whistleblowers is often discouraging to others, regardless of which jurisdiction they are in, as two recent Fairfax Media reports demonstrate.

Brian Hood, who exposed bribery by Australian representatives selling plastic bank note technology overseas and spoke at the launch of Whistling While They Work 2, is still unemployed and believes his disclosure has made it much harder to find work.

Meanwhile, former Australian Taxation Office employee Ron Shamir is alleging unfair dismissal as a result of a disclosure to the Inspector-General of Taxation. Shamir says he wanted to make the call and then leave it with the appropriate authority but the ATO bosses decided he could no longer be trusted and terminated him.

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