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Protecting insiders

TWO pieces of legislation, one in the State system and one mooted for Federal law, may soon make life easier for the investigative journalist’s best friend – the whistleblower.

As the recent events in the Police Royal Commission show, protection for whistleblowers cannot come quickly enough.

Considerable pressure has been exerted on the four officers at the centre of allegations regarding a stalled investigation into sexual abuse claims against a prominent former sportsman.

The WA Government’s Whistleblower Protection Bill is currently going through the upper house of WA Parliament.

Attorney General Jim McGinty said whistleblowers would have a clear process for reporting their concerns, either to the agency with responsibility for the matter or to an independent agency such as the Ombudsman, Commissioner for Public Sector Standards, Auditor General, police or the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The Federal Government’s response to the accounting and auditing confidence crisis includes suggestions for legislative protection to be given to employees who blow the whistle on corporate wrongdoings.

Under the proposed WA legislation it will become a criminal offence, punishable with a fine of up to $24,000 or two years’ jail, for a person to take detrimental action against a whistleblower because he or she has made, or intends to make, a public interest disclosure.

Whistleblower protection has been a vexing issue for governments. The WA Inc Royal Commission highlighted whistleblowers as a major tool for keeping governments honest.

“Whistleblowing provides one means for the protection of that public interest,” its report says.

Whistleblower protection was also one of the main terms of reference for the 1995 Commission on Government.

Commission chairman Jack Gregor said whistleblowers needed protection.

“Without protection these people aren’t going to report any wrongdoings. I know of a number of cases in the public service where allegations of wrong-doings have been made and investigations have not been followed up,” he said.

Mr Gregor said whistle-blowers faced loss of income, status and, in some cases, lifestyle.

“They can be threatened with legal action, given too little or too much work to do or get subjected to harassment and indtimidation by their work colleagues,” he said.

While whistleblowers have been glorified in movies, in reality they risk great hardship.

Karen Silkwood became one of the most famous whistle-blowers for exposing problems at the Kerr-McGee plutonium production plant in the US. She died in a mysterious car accident while gathering evidence of poor plant safety.

Ms Silkwood was later played by Meryl Streep in The Karen Silkwood Story.

A more recent Hollywood dramatisation of corporate exposure was The Insider, in which Russell Crowe played Jeffrey Wigand, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp executive who revealed the company deliberately hid potentially damaging research about smoking. Mr Wigand was subject to extreme personal and financial hardship.

Radio 6PR morning show host Paul Murray, who has been following the sexual abuse cover-up case closely, said whistleblowers were often treated very harshly.

“These four officers are exposed and have no protection,” he said. “There haven’t been a lot of whistleblowers in WA in recent times.”

Australian Journalists Association WA branch secretary Michael Sinclair-Jones said public interest had to over

ride corporate loyalty whe

laws or regulations were deliberately broken or undermined.

“This fundamental principle requires legal protection for whistleblowers and freedom for journalists to protect confidential sources,” he said.

However, there is a concern that whistleblower allegations will be made for malicious reasons.

Mr Gregor said any whistle-blower legislation needed a very fine balance to ensure that people did not do things maliciously.

“We suggested setting up somewhere where whistle-blowers could go so their complaint could be investigated,” he said.

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