Important unanimous report calling for stronger whistleblower protections

Read the full speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (16:42):  by leave—This is a unanimous report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services, which is no mean feat when you consider that the committee has on its membership Greens, Senator Xenophon from the Nick Xenophon Team, Liberals, Nationals and Labor representatives, and, perhaps even more remarkably, both members of the House and senators. Yet, despite all of our differences, we were able to come up with a unanimous report in relation to this very significant whistleblowing inquiry.

The reason that whistleblowing protections are important is fairly obvious when you think about the individual whistleblowers. It's an incredibly dangerous thing to do. To blow the whistle on unlawful conduct or conduct that breaches your professional standards or your industry codes, particularly when you've found out about these breaches through work or through a contract that you might have with a principal, can result in just a slap on the wrist, to being demoted, to losing pay, to even being sacked, to having your reputation ruined, to not being able to get a job in the same industry, to not being able to earn an income. These things are serious ramifications, and so it is important for those individual whistleblowers that there be a strong regime of protection in place in order to ensure that their lives are not ruined just because they've done the right thing by disclosing wrongdoing.

Similarly, and much more importantly, in my view, the importance of having a pro-whistleblowing culture should not be disregarded when it comes to the public benefit of that culture—not just the private benefit to whistleblowers in that they get protected but the public benefit that we obtain as a nation from having wrongdoing brought to light and finding out about it so that regulators are in a position to actually be able to take action. For example, corporate tax evasion harms everyone. If corporates aren't paying their taxes, then it's you and me and people in our electorates who are then turned to to pay taxes to make up the shortfall. If firms are engaging in environmental vandalism and tipping toxic chemicals into the river, that's something that harms the environment and harms everybody who enjoys it. So there is a public benefit in that wrongdoing being able to be brought to light by people who are getting access to information about it. I think when we talk about a pro-disclosure culture or a pro-whistleblowing culture, it is the public benefit that is really motivating us as a parliament to look at what can be done to extend whistleblower protections to the private sector and the not-for-profit sector and to strengthen them in the public sector. This is a report that it is really very significant, I think, in that it deals with that desire to have a pro-disclosure culture.

It's also important because it tries to grapple with the questions about why someone should blow the whistle—why someone should disclose unlawful conduct or conduct that breaches professional standards or industry codes. It's certainly the first parliamentary inquiry in which I've been able to have a discussion about Immanuel Kant with a witness. We did quite enjoy the discussion around whether people should do the right thing because they should do the right thing, or whether it would be possible to look at rewards or incentives for people to be forthcoming with information about wrongdoing. As the member for Burt said, this is a fairly significant change of approach for Australia. There are some precedents—there are some bodies that will pay rewards for information about criminal offences, for example—but to look at a possibility of incentivising people to come forward with information about wrongdoing is quite a new thing for us to have looked at. So it was really useful that we got such differing perspectives from such expert bodies and witnesses. We were so grateful to all of the submitters that took the time to make a submission to our inquiry, no matter where they stood on any of the issues they came and spoke to us about. Each of the submissions was very useful; I certainly appreciated it and I know the other members of the committee did as well.

This report does recommend the possibility of incentives or rewards being paid. If someone discloses information about wrongdoing to a regulator and they're then able to get a successful prosecution or proceeding brought against the wrongdoer, this report recommends that there should be able to be the possibility of a reward being paid to the person who has given the information. It does not recommend the right or the entitlement to a reward, but a discretion on the part of the regulators or a whistleblower protection authority—which we have suggested establishing—to be able to pay a reward if they consider a number of things, including that the information was material to getting the good result in the proceedings, or in the prosecution, as the case may be. We were informed during the course of the inquiry by some expert witnesses from the US who had been looking at their own security bodies that the SEC has been implementing its own rewards system—though they used slightly different language there—for some time now, and they've seen very strong results in terms of increased numbers of prosecutions and success. So it is a new idea. It's something that's been kicking around for a while, but it's a new thing for a committee like ours to have considered in any detail. I think it's a very sensible recommendation to allow a bit of flexibility for the regulators to be able to make a decision to pay a reward in appropriate and limited circumstances.

I want to join with the other members of the committee in thanking all of the members of the committee for their collaborative approach. Of course, I thank you, Deputy Speaker Irons, as the chair of the committee, and the deputy chair, Senator O'Neill. I particularly wanted to thank members of the secretariat like Patrick Hodder and Jon Bell, who have been incredibly supportive and, might I also say, patient with the committee. I also want to again thank everybody else who made a contribution. There are a range of members of the secretariat whose names appear on the inside of the report, and I encourage people to have a look at those names and to be grateful for the work that has been done. Also, to the people undertaking logistical work, Hansard, the broadcasters and other people who have made this inquiry possible, I wanted to record my thanks as well.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Irons):  On indulgence, I congratulate the committee for coming up with the report. It's been unanimous. Well done to the members of that committee.


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