Cor­po­rate whistle­blow­ers 'des­per­ate' for new pro­tec­tions

The Guardian Australia - - News - Christo­pher Knaus

Whistle­blower Sally McDow counts her­self among the lucky few.

McDow was un­der­mined, de­rided, marginalised, threat­ened with ter­mi­na­tion, and ul­ti­mately made re­dun­dant af­ter blow­ing the whis­tle on cor­po­rate malfea­sance at Origin En­ergy in 2015.

But she emerged with her life rel­a­tively in­tact. A highly ex­pe­ri­enced lawyer with a tight-knit fam­ily, McDow was able to with­stand the im­mense pres­sure and find a new sense of pur­pose.

She launched the first ever court case test­ing the strength of Aus­tralia’s cor­po­rate whistle­blower scheme in 2016, and cre­ated CPR Part­ners, a firm that sup­ports fel­low whistle­blow­ers and trains cor­po­rates on their obli­ga­tions.

She says the peo­ple she’s helped have had their lives all but de­stroyed for speak­ing out.

“No one wants to be a whistle­blower be­cause it’s just a fate worse than … you wouldn’t wish it on your worst en­emy,” McDow told Guardian Aus­tralia.

McDow is in Can­berra this week, watch­ing in hope as the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duces a bill to the Se­nate that would strengthen pro­tec­tions for cor­po­rate whistle­blow­ers.

Pro­po­nents are seek­ing to have the bill passed in this last sit­ting week, af­ter it was in­tro­duced early af­ter­noon on Wed­nes­day.

The amend­ments to the Cor­po­ra­tions Act, if passed, would bet­ter shield whistle­blow­ers from reprisals, and al­low in­di­vid­u­als to go to the me­dia and re­tain pro­tec­tion.

The cur­rent regime suf­fers from crit­i­cal weak­nesses. It only pro­tects whistle­blow­ers from reprisals from their em­ployer if the acts con­sti­tute crim­i­nal vic­tim­i­sa­tion di­rectly linked to the dis­clo­sure. Whistle­blow­ers are only pro­tected if they tell their own com­pany or the cor­po­rate reg­u­la­tor, the Aus­tralian In­vest­ments and Se­cu­ri­ties Com­mis­sion. Go­ing to the me­dia does not af­ford pro­tec­tion un­der the cur­rent Cor­po­ra­tions Act.

McDow says the changes can­not come soon enough, and has urged par­lia­ment to pass ur­gently.

“It’s needed,” she said. “I speak to whistle­blow­ers reg­u­larly.”

“There’s a whole lot of peo­ple right now who are cur­rently des­per­ately wait­ing for this bill to pass, let alone fu­ture gen­er­a­tions who will ben­e­fit from greater trans­parency.”

The bill – the re­sult of work by some within the Coali­tion and the Cen­tre Al­liance se­na­tor Rex Pa­trick – is ex­pected to be in­tro­duced to the Se­nate.

The Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity in­tegrity ex­pert Prof A J Brown said the mea­sures bet­ter pro­tect­ing dis­clo­sures to jour­nal­ism were a “big break­through”.

“Pre­vi­ous plans to limit this to ex­treme, un­likely emer­gen­cies have been shelved,” Brown wrote in the Aus­tralian.

“In­stead, if em­ploy­ees blow the whis­tle at least to a reg­u­la­tor, and noth­ing is hap­pen­ing in 90 days, it’s rel­a­tively simple for them to go pub­lic.”

“There are some hoops to go through, and time will tell if they’re still too tight. But this is Aus­tralia’s most pow­er­ful driver yet, not just for com­pa­nies to im­prove their cul­ture and com­pli­ance but for fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies and reg­u­la­tors like the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice, Asic and Apra to change their pre­vi­ous lax ways.”

Sally McDow is cam­paign­ing for stronger cor­po­rate whistle­blower pro­tec­tions.

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