International calls for Australia to extend whistleblower protections have found support closer to home, with a leading academic describing defences for those working in the private sector as “fairly poor” compared to other similar countries.
A report released earlier this month by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) praised recent changes to Australian law which increase protections for government sector workers.
But the report also recommended extending those laws to help employees in the private sector seeking to expose wrongdoing.
Dr Suelette Dreyfus, a Research Fellow at Melbourne University, who was the co-author of a 2014 report examining whistleblower laws in G20 countries, said employees risk facing discrimination or termination of employment if they try to expose corruption.
“Australia doesn’t have the same sort of corporate whistleblower protections and requirements that, for example, the financial sector would have in the US,” she said.
Dreyfus noted that while it was a travesty the Obama administration has been prosecuting whisteblowers they should be protecting, the US private sector's regulatory environment is more thorough than that in Australia.
“They’re not perfect but they’re a big step closer to where we should be.”
According to Dreyfus, research shows people considering speaking out are often well versed in what legislation is on the books to protect them. Stronger laws don’t just protect people after the fact – they make the act of whistleblowing more likely.
“Whistleblowers are not stupid. They’re not going to step forward and put their bum on the line if they know they’re not going to be protected,” Dreyfus said.
The Greens have been pushing hard for increased protections in recent months, with Senator Lee Rhiannon focusing in particular on those working for private higher education providers.
"We have seen whistleblowers employed at private education companies receive inadequate legal protections when attempting to call out potentially fraudulent activity,” Rhiannon said in a release earlier this month.
In November 2014 Freya Newman, who had been working as a part-time librarian at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, escaped a prison sentence for her part in leaking the tuition records of Frances Abbott, the Prime Minister’s daughter.
The records showed Ms Abbott had been secretly awarded a $60,000 scholarship, which other students had not been invited to compete for.
Newman pleaded guilty to a breach the NSW Crimes Act but was not able to invoke any whistleblower protections.
Earlier this week a number of university employees spoke to Four Corners to air concerns about the pressure to pass low achieving students, which the Independent Commission Against Corruption has warned is producing an environment conducive to corruption.
One academic interviewed for the program was sessional University of Sydney lecturer Dr Zena O’Connor.
“There are many sessional and also full-time lecturers who seem to be reluctant to speak out because their livelihood is on the line and they don't want to be seen as troublemakers or inadequate somehow,” O’Connor told New Matilda.
Dreyfus is currently working with overseas institutions experiencing serious issues of corruption and helping them come up with strategies to provide safe avenues for whistleblowers. Corruption at universities is one focal point of her work.
Though Drefus hasn’t seen the details of the Greens’ plans she is supportive of the idea.
Dreyfus said providing whistleblowers with anonymous pathways to make complaints was key, and that mandatory reporting to an independent third party, such as an ombudsman, would put pressure on companies not to ignore them.
“Third parties don’t only mean the media. It can mean, for example, going to a union, some sort of trade body, it could be going to a regulator – there are lots of different entities,” she said.
Dreyfus said this was one positive aspect of legislation formulated under the former Labor government and implemented last year. Despite shortcomings, it still puts Australia ahead of other G20 nations in terms of public sector protections.
“It puts the people who are handling the whistleblower’s complaint on notice that they can’t sweep it under the carpet, that someone else in government is actually watching, and they’re watching with a time clock ticking,” Dreyfus said.
The Greens see protecting staff in private colleges is part of a bigger project.
Rhiannon, for whom Freya Newman is now interning, described it "as a first step towards a broader whistleblower protection regime”.
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