Whistleblowing: betrayal or public duty? A conference report

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 31, October 2002, pp. 12-13.

Brian Martin

David Landa was NSW Ombudsman from 1988-1995 as well as serving in many other public roles. In recent years he has developed an interest in whistleblowing, especially on what can be done to set up realistic protocols so that disclosures can be made safely and the organisation benefit from the information provided. He took the initiative to organise a conference titled "Whistleblowing: betrayal or public duty?" that was held on 6 August in Sydney.

About 85 people attended, most of them representatives of public sector organisations, with relatively few from the private sector. Landa tried mightily to attract private sector participation but with only limited success. The conference was organised by Transparency International, an independent anticorruption body, and sponsored by the firm KPMG Forensic, and held in the KPMG building in downtown Sydney.

Landa opened the conference. He noted that whistleblower codes and laws are not achieving their aim: they are reactive in the sense that they deal with problems that arise after a disclosure. What is needed instead, he said, are proactive solutions that allow organisations to benefit from disclosures. That means trustworthy protocols are needed to make disclosures.

The first main speaker was Commissioner Sitesh Bhojani from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. He focussed on what the ACCC is doing to challenge cartels, which are increasingly of global scope. When corporations collude in price-fixing or other illegal behaviour, this is very hard to expose without help from insiders. Therefore, the ACCC is proposing a leniency policy that gives immunity to the first cartel participant (except for the ringleader) to reveal the cartel to the ACCC.

I was the next speaker, representing Whistleblowers Australia. I started by giving examples of whistleblower disasters, such as the Bill Toomer case, where the whistleblower’s career is destroyed, vast sums are expended, the organisation receives bad publicity, morale declines and the original problem is not fixed. I then looked at six arenas for seeking solutions: (1) designing the organisation so that problems do not arise; (2) managers fixing problems; (3) employees speaking out about problems; (4) outside groups, such as consumer groups, speaking out about problems; (5) watchdog bodies such as ombudsmen dealing with problems; (6) organisations collapsing due to their problems. For each of these arenas, there are top-down solutions, such as improved watchdog bodies. My preference, though, was for empowerment solutions, including employee participation in designing organisations and improving employees’ skills in organisational politics.

Greg Chilvers of the Police Association of NSW spoke at length about the case of Wheadon, a police whistleblower who came to grief, with the familiar litany of lack of protection, harassment and breach of the duty of care. Chilver’s assessment was that fear and secrecy remain the keys to the NSW police culture after the Royal Commission.

The next two speakers dealt with hotlines, which are dedicated telephone lines to handle employee complaints. Holly Lindsay of BHP Billiton told of the multinational’s approach to ethical business conduct, which involves a charter, a booklet with guidelines and sample situations, a fraud hotline and ethics panel. From BHP Billiton’s point of view, some of the biggest difficulties involve doing business in countries where bribery is a way of life. Lindsay spoke only of the policy, giving no information about the actual scale of corruption and misconduct in the organisation. But at least she was there. No other corporations were willing to send a speaker.

Brett Warfield told of KPMG Forensic’s hotline service. Companies that want to provide an independent hotline for their employees, rather than an internal reporting system, pay KPMG to run the service. The advantage is that KPMG is seen as independent. Warfield said that nine out of ten calls are one-off, so there is only one shot at getting information. Those callers who are willing to work with KPMG can have a bigger influence on what happens afterwards. KPMG finds that most calls are accurate, with few vexatious allegations. Warfield emphasised that hotlines are only one part of a wider approach to dealing with unethical behaviour.

Ron McLeod, Commonwealth Ombudsman, gave an overview of how his office deals with whistleblower disclosures. He concluded his talk with a list of ten practical suggestions for whistleblowers, most of which you will also hear from experienced members of Whistleblowers Australia.

Kieran Pehm, Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), noted the value of whistleblowers. Like others, he noted that various corporate collapses such as Enron were a sign that whistleblowing was needed much earlier, before problems became so serious. He reported on surveys of management and staff about awareness of the NSW Protected Disclosures Act. Managers have a much higher awareness than staff, suggesting a need to increase awareness. He acknowledged that ICAC needed to do better with protected disclosures, given concerns by Whistleblowers Australia, saying that ICAC is now more attentive to the need to consult with whistleblowers before referring complaints back to their employer.

The final speaker was Quentin Dempster, ABC journalist for the 7.30 Report and author of the important book Whistleblowers. He was candid about the shortcomings of the media but also harsh on corporate cultures, saying that with so many whistleblower stories around, it was time for a change in corporate attitudes - but nothing was changing. Until changes occur, the media would remain an avenue of last resort for whistleblowers.

After the talks, there were relatively few questions from the audience. Was this because participants were not really interested or because it was too risky for them to speak up? The tea and lunch breaks provided an opportunity for those who wanted to follow up specific points. The conference was a useful contribution in putting whistleblowing on the agenda for more agencies. They would learn a lot by talking to members of Whistleblowers Australia but I suspect they were much more comfortable attending the conference.


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