Protection for whistleblowers in Australia - A new era?

“Nobody in Australia much likes whistleblowers…” (attributed to former NSW Police Commissioner Tony Lauer)

2017 could prove to be a landmark year for a previously neglected aspect of Australian workplace law. Where those who blew the  whistle on corporate or public sector wrongdoing once faced retribution without legal protections, recent developments have underscored the need to comprehensively safeguard whistleblowers in this country. While the sentiment expressed by former NSW Police Commissioner Tony Lauer in the 1990s may still reflect the prevailing attitude in Australian workplaces, change is afoot.

Late last year, in a political deal between the Coalition and crossbenchers to pass the double dissolution trigger legislation, strong protections for union whistleblowers were introduced. As part of the pact, the government also agreed to review public and private sector whistleblower protections with a view to enacting reform by 2018. In January 2017, the first ever case under whistleblower provisions in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) was filed against Origin Energy by their former compliance lawyer.

If the applicant is successful, the implications for corporate Australia will be far-reaching. Elsewhere, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth) — although far from perfect — has helped facilitate the reporting of public sector misfeasance and corruption by federal mandarins since coming into force in 2014. Improvements in this vexing field will inevitably be slow and controversial. It took two decades, six parliamentary inquiries, and a number of unsuccessful bills before the Public Interest Disclosure Act was finally passed. But with apparent domestic political will for greater whistleblower protections and impetus from developments in foreign jurisdictions, there is room for optimism — and a need for external lawyers and in-house counsel alike to be aware of the regulatory landscape.

This article will begin by exploring the history of whistleblower protections in Australia, before considering three relevant laws which protect whistleblowers in different sectors. It will then consider the strategic utilisation of whistleblower legislation in employment litigation and the potential applicability of foreign laws to Australian whistleblowers, before concluding with a discussion of expected developments in the coming years.

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Written by John Wilson and Kieran Pender. First published in Ethos.