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Monday, June 30, 2014

G20 and countries including Australia need to re-open the whistleblower protection file

This survey of Whistleblower Protection Rules in G20 countries (pdf) notes that the group declared in 2010 that they would have adequate measures in place by 2012 to protect whistleblowers and provide them with safe, reliable avenues to report fraud, corruption and other wrongdoing. 

The report acknowledges some advances but concludes the G 20 countries have fallen short of meeting the commitment. In many, "whistleblower protection laws fail to meet international standards, and fall significantly short of best practices." One of the authors, Professor AJ Brown told The World Today.
It's very much a job that is less than half done in terms of protecting the whistleblowers in the public sector and it's a job that's less than a third done when it comes to protecting whistleblowers in the private sector ..
Australia does reasonably well on public sector rules, with room for improvement, but is way short of the mark when it comes to the private sector.

The adequacy of protections requires attention because of costs to the economy and other reasons:
Serious wrongdoing can lead to wasted taxpayer money, unsafe consumer products, public health threats, financial instability and environmental damage. Lacking strong legal protections, government and corporate employees who report wrongdoing to their managers or to regulators can face dismissal, harassment and other forms of retribution. With employees deterred from coming forward, government and corporate misconduct can be perpetuated
As Transparency International points out, collective and individual country initiative and ambition is required if the G20 is serious about anti corruption measures.

Should Australia, as G 20 President this year chose to lead from the front, a senate committee, almost on cue, has recommended a number of steps to improve private sector whistleblower protections.

The recommendations include a review of the adequacy of Australia's current framework for protecting corporate whistleblowers, expansion of the definition of whistleblower and the scope of information that can attract protection, establishment of a special whistleblower office within the corporate regulator, and closer alignment between public and private sector protections.

Also that the government explore options for reward based incentives for corporate whistleblowers including qui tam arrangements that would enable someone who assists a prosecution to be eligible to receive all or part of any penalty imposed.

The senate committee also made recommendations (Chapter 22) on the need for greater transparency at the corporate regulator ASIC for a number of reasons including to counter perceptions that is captured by big business.  ASIC should publish more of its internal policies and keep the business and academic worlds better informed about developments and trends  by providing and disseminating information it receives from a range of sources, as well as ASIC's analysis of this information.

The G20 survey comments about Australia include:

Public sector
Australian public sector whistleblower protection rules are described (24-25) as fairly comprehensive with federal and state legislation now covering all jurisdictions. 
"Across the board, Australian public sector legislation is strong in requiring organisations to have internal procedures not only for facilitating disclosures, but also for protecting and supporting employees who report wrongdoing."
(Of course this is largely theoretical and does not include an examination of how the laws work in practice.)

Also there remain significant differences between the rules that apply in the federal and various state jurisdictions.

Whistleblower reports about wrongdoing by members of parliament, ministerial staff or the judiciary are not protected by the federal Public Interest Disclosure Act while state whistleblowing legislation typically cover reporting of wrongdoing committed by all public officials (including politicians and judicial members).
The federal act also carves out external reporting on intelligence related material defined widely enough to cover police matters. In some states after following proper procedures, disclosure to the media still a criminal offence

Private sector
The G20 survey also highlights that there is a particular need to focus on introducing laws to provide better coverage of the private sector.

Australian private sector whistleblower protections are rated in the lowest grade in nine of fourteen categories because the laws have no relevant provision or are not at all comprehensive. Overall, not as bad as some others (Russia, Italy, Canada, Saudi Arabia, India for example) but way short of the US, UK and Korea who tick many more boxes.

Senate Committee
The Senate Economic References Committee report on Performance of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has received plenty of publicity over the findings regarding the Commonwealth Bank and its financial planners but Chapter 14 addresses whistleblower protection generally. Chapter 22 examines the transparency issue.

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