Proposed Whistleblower Protection Authority in Australia Would Offer Awards

Australia Whistleblower

Advocates are urging Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to establish a Whistleblower Protection Authority in the government’s next reform omnibus. The proposed Authority has backing in Parliament led by MPs Andrew Wilkie and Helen Haines and Senators David Pocock and Paul Scarr.

The Whistleblower Protection Authority (WPA) would be a dedicated independent office designed to put Australia’s federal whistleblowing laws to real use. Notably, the proposal for the Authority includes calls for whistleblower awards. The proposal does not, however, include calls for anonymous reporting channels and strong confidentiality protections, another key feature of whistleblower programs according to experts.

Australia currently has different sets of whistleblower protections under Commonwealth law, including the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, covering the federal public sector. There are also public sector whistleblower protections operating in each State and Territory. According to whistleblower advocates, these regulations have little teeth: whistleblowers continue to face retaliation and there has only been one whistleblower award issued over the past three decades.

A report outlining the proposal for the WPA, published by Transparency International Australia, Human Rights Law Centre, and Griffith University’s Centre for Governance & Public Policy states, “While we have tried different systems for administering these laws over the last 30 years, we now know that without strong and capable central enforcement, the protections will simply not be applied in the cases where they are most needed.”

The report highlights 10 key concepts for the proposed WPA, one of which is “Rewards, compensation & financial support.” It notes that the WPA should be given the authority to “administer redress and reward schemes based on a proportion of penalties, financial savings or other income derived by the Commonwealth as a result of whistleblower disclosures.”

The United States’ whistleblower award system, which has been pointed to as an example that Australia should follow, offers awards based in proportion to the money collected in the enforcement action aided by the whistleblower’s disclosure. For example, under the SEC Whistleblower Program, eligible whistleblowers whose disclosure leads to a successful enforcement action are eligible for monetary awards of 10-30% of the funds collected by the government.

Another central feature of the SEC Whistleblower Program and other U.S. whistleblower laws are strong anonymity and confidentiality protections. The report proposing the WPA makes no mention of anonymity, which whistleblower advocates see as a shortcoming.

“It is encouraging to see lawmakers and advocates in Australia call for whistleblower awards. However, it is a well-established baseline that anonymity and confidential reporting channels must be available for whistleblowers in order to establish a safe venue for reporting,” says Siri Nelson, Executive Director of National Whistleblower Center. “Rewards will incentivize whistleblowers to come forward, but the lack of these protections puts them at risk – it’s a catch 22.”

Other tenets the reports outline as most important include:

The report continues: “Research shows that too many Australian whistleblowers continue to experience retaliation or unfair treatment for speaking up, too much wrongdoing is going unreported because of the lack of support, and current legal protections are inaccessible and making no difference.”

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