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Time to take a different approach to protecting whistleblowers

By Glenn Birrell - posted Wednesday, 2 June 2004

The Iraq prison abuse scandal now engulfing the US military and its administration was brought about initially by Joseph Darby, a 24-year-old reservist in the 372nd Military Police Company, who slipped an anonymous note under a superior's door.

Daily we read of courageous individuals who speak out at potentially huge personal cost. Like in the “Trial of Lies at Shell”, in which oil reserves were audited by a part-time former employee who went along with Shell's alleged attempt to conceal over estimates because he feared for his job.

Even here in Australia, the rogue trading in foreign exchange options came to light by a whistleblower - but why did it take so long? It is time for us to look at the ability people have to speak out.


The Australian Institute of Criminology puts the cost of fraud at $5.88 billion. Fraud is the largest category of crime, representing 31 per cent of all crime committed. This equates to $1600 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Are we equipping people with the necessary tools and protection to speak up?

As a community we have a responsibility to do something about it. Our governments and legislators need to look seriously at the mechanisms people have at their disposal to report illegal conduct or inappropriate behaviour.

So what have the various state governments and federal government done?

All Australian states have enacted whistleblower-protection legislation to support the reporting of corrupt conduct in the public sector. However, there is no uniformity in the legislation. Some states' legislation doesn’t even allow the whistleblower to remain anonymous.

The Victorian Whistleblower Protection Act 2001 is by far the strongest in terms of protection and provides the option of anonymity for the whistleblower.


The Victorian government’s Inquiry into Fraud and Electronic Commerce report (pdf, 1.8MB), released in January 2004, recommended extending the scope of the Whistleblower Protection Act 2001 to cover the private sector as well as the public sector.

Whistleblowers in the private sector are provided with no statutory protection against reprisals.

So what reporting tools or mechanisms are available to people to confront bad behaviour in the private or corporate sector? Nothing is provided in any legislation enacted to date.

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About the Author

Glenn Birrell is CEO and Managing Director of Your-Call Disclosure Management Services.

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