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Whistleblowers and their role in civil society and need federal protection

By Andrew Murray - posted Thursday, 23 October 2003

Over the past decade the Australian Democrats have campaigned for strong whistleblower protection laws in both the private and public sectors. We have introduced whistleblower protection legislation for debate in the Federal Parliament but the government remains massively indifferent.

Perhaps the Cole Royal Commission provides an opportunity to push the whistleblowers case.

An effective whistleblower protection scheme serves the public interest by exposing and eliminating fraud, impropriety and waste. This is especially topical in the private sector, given the giant corporate collapses of WorldCom, Enron and HIH, and in the public sector with alleged government involvement in the sexing up of intelligence reports to encourage war in Iraq.


The Cole Royal Commission Report sets out 212 recommendations addressing serious problems in the Building and Construction Industry. The report draws attention to unacceptable industrial practices that challenge the rule of law, undermine the intent of the Workplace Relations Act and adversely affect productivity, efficiency and competition.

If you are fighting criminality or corruption in the workplace you need to encourage disclosure in the public interest. Public-sector disclosure laws are quite effective in the States and Territories but are effectively absent in the Federal arena. And private-sector disclosure laws are effectively non-existent. Witness protection schemes are a poor substitute for disclosure laws.

Lawlessness, corruption and thuggery cannot properly be addressed without whistleblower protection mechanisms in place. Impropriety will only be uncovered if the people in a position to reveal it are genuinely protected, and compensated where appropriate.

There have been useful private-sector initiatives aimed at self-regulation. The commercial world has come to realise that encouraging whistleblowing reduces impropriety and increases productivity.

In the past few years, major audit and accounting groups such as Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and KPMG have established procedures that allow employees to blow the whistle anonymously to auditors on corporate fraud, corruption or theft.

The Australian Stock Exchange's Corporate Governance Council recommends that listed companies provide mechanisms for employees to alert management and the board to misconduct without fear of retribution.


Whistleblowers show great courage in exposing the corrupt and the improper. It is a sad fact that the law still offers them little real protection. Victimisation, exclusion, harassment and derision are all too common experiences for whistleblowers.

Law is needed to establish and enhance the legal rights of whistleblowers, and authorities receiving information must be discreet and wherever possible, maintain the whistleblower's anonymity.

Public disclosure laws have their limits, however. New whistle-blowing law in WA did not prevent a Health Department whistleblower's name being used extensively in Parliament in August.

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About the Author

Senator Andrew Murray is Taxation and Workplace Relations Spokesperson for the Australian Democrats and a Senator for Western Australia.

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