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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Page: 13876


Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (12:57): As I stand to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018, I think it's important to ask the question: what is a whistleblower? What drives them to blow the whistle on an organisation that they work for? And, of course, it comes down to a sense of deep ethics and fairness. Many people simply cannot live with the fact that what they are seeing before them is wrongdoing. Even though it's easier and certainly a smoother path in life just to put up with it, just to go with the flow, not to cause any ripples, they are compelled by a deep sense of honesty and ethics to what we have come to call blow the whistle.

It's not a new phenomenon; it's been going on for years. One of the most famous whistleblowers that many of us would be familiar with is Deep Throat, who exposed the Nixon Watergate scandal. That person's identity was kept secret for decades, and it was only in recent years that we've come to know that this person was a senior member of the FBI. Anybody who knows law enforcement officials knows how deeply they hold to their ethics and their sense of loyalty to their organisation and what it must have taken that person to go to journalists and say, 'What is going on in my organisation, what is going on at the heart of the administration, is not right and it needs to be exposed.'

In the decades since, Western democracies have come a long way in ensuring that people can come forward, but we can and we must do better. Frankly, it's easy to stand here in this place and say that we value these people and what they do. But out there, when they're faced with managers and departmental heads who are desperate to keep information inside the organisation, is where the rubber hits the road. That's where people face career-limiting options. That's where people are told, 'If you speak out you'll be sacked or you'll face sanction or you'll face financial penalties.' That's why the laws need to be robust. That's why I'm very proud to say that, if Labor are elected, we will protect whistleblowers with a whistleblowing act, with a single piece of legislation that sets out very clearly that whistleblowers will be protected. We'll set up a whistleblower rewards scheme, which will go in some way to help redress the financial implications that can accompany being a whistleblower in Australia. People face great financial hardship when they decide to blow the whistle. Even if they think their identity's going to be protected, they can face great financial hardship. There are legal costs and—even though it shouldn't happen—they can lose their job or lose prospects for promotion. A whistleblower rewards scheme will see people get some fraction of the proceeds that the government may peel back from fraudulent activity. It doesn't tell the whole story, but it helps people in some regard.

Labor will establish a whistleblower protection authority—again, an important signal to people that we are on their side—and we'll fund a special prosecutor to bring corporate criminals to justice. This is of particular importance right now. We've just gone through a banking royal commission that highlighted appalling and criminal misconduct in the banking sector, and that royal commission came about only because of a whistleblower in the banking sector, who put his life and his career on the line to expose wrongdoing. He came forward; he spoke to journalists; journalists blew it wide open, and then in we came and said: we need a royal commission into this sector. What did we see? We saw absolute mayhem in the banking and financial services sector. Those institutions once held the trust of the people of this country, and we saw absolute mayhem across that sector. Those opposite voted 26 times against that royal commission, and they'll hang their heads in shame forever for it. They voted 26 times against a banking royal commission that we now know was incredibly necessary for the future health and wellbeing of the banking and financial sector in this country. It was a whistleblower who brought all that to light. If he hadn't come forward, maybe people would still be getting ripped off. The events of all those terrible stories we heard during the royal commission would still be occurring, and we'd be none the wiser. Those opposite did everything they could to stop that commission going ahead. I say to them: shame on you!

Right now, blowing the whistle on crime and misconduct is incredibly difficult. It's hard financially and it's hard to decide that you want to go down that road. It takes a lot of courage to do it. Imagine: you're in your job, enjoying your job and going about your business, and you come across information that makes you think: 'This isn't quite right. What do I do?' There are American studies that show sometimes as many as 45 per cent of people in a workplace come across information that they think needs to be exposed. Sixty-four per cent of those people will do something about it. Most people have an innate sense that they need to do the right thing. But it's a hard thing, when you just want to get on with your life—go to your job, earn your money, look after your family—to be faced with information that is perhaps going to single you out, see you exposed, see you in the gun of sometimes very powerful employers and institutions. It's a very difficult thing to contemplate. I'll echo the sentiments of the member for Fairfax in saying I take my hat off to any Australian who comes across information so egregious that they decide it needs to be exposed and who is willing to put themselves in the gun for that. We need to be here for them. As a parliament, we need to stand up for those people.

For many Australians who see wrongdoing and want it to stop, blowing the whistle isn't worth the risk at the moment. It's hard and it's just not worth the risk. But that shouldn't be the case, and Labor wants to make sure it doesn't stay the case. We want to make sure that people can do the right thing and not have their lives ruined as a result. As I said, if elected we will establish a whistleblower rewards scheme that makes it easier for people to come forward. Whistleblowers will receive a percentage of the penalties arising out of the wrongdoing that they reveal. Once a crook—a thief or a fraudster—is hit with a financial penalty as a result of whistleblowing, the whistleblower rewards scheme will kick into gear to allow a proportion of that penalty to be given as a reward to the whistleblower.

Let's be frank: that's not usually the motivation for whistleblowing. The motivation for whistleblowing is to do the right thing for the right reasons. But if people know that maybe there's some light at the end of the tunnel—that their finances won't be too badly impacted and that maybe there will be some financial reward as a result of what they're whistleblowing on—that will only help. I think I've seen figures from the US that whistleblowing can recoup as much as US$4.7 billion through false claims. So people whistleblow for all sorts of reasons.

People don't like to see other people getting away with dishonest acts. We used to call it 'dobbing' in Australia—you'd dob somebody in for doing something wrong. We should end that. It's not dobbing. It's not dobbing to tell somebody about somebody else doing something wrong, especially when it is a fraud against other taxpayers. The whistleblower rewards scheme will be funded entirely by the penalties collected by the government.

Labor will also strengthen protections for whistleblowers through the establishment of a whistleblower protection authority. It's a one-stop shop to support and protect whistleblowers. It will have dedicated staff to advise whistleblowers on their rights. This is incredibly important. People will know that they can go to this authority and get information on what whistleblowing entails, what risks they're up for and what rewards they might be up for. It will assist them through the disclosure process and help them access compensation if they face reprisals from employers and managers.

Labor believes all whistleblowers should be treated the same, regardless of the type of workplace they're in. Whistleblowing is about exposing fraudulent, unethical, dishonest behaviour. Fraudulent, unethical, dishonest behaviour deserves no protection from this parliament, and that's why whistleblowers should be encouraged to expose these things. Right now our whistleblower laws are far too opaque and inconsistent, so a Labor government will create a single Australian whistleblowing act. It will consolidate all mainstream whistleblowing legislation into one location so whistleblowers can readily understand how they are protected. So there will be a whistleblowing authority under a whistleblowing act—we're going to make it simple for whistleblowers to do the right thing.

This will be a major shake-up of Australia's fairly fractured and opaque whistleblowing regime. At the moment, whistleblowers don't know what their rights are or what they're up for. We will make it simple and clear that whistleblowing is a protected activity under a Labor government. We will undertake detailed design work to make sure that the new laws, the proposed reward scheme and the protection authority are powerful and effective. We'll make it clear, if elected to government, that departmental heads cannot hide behind opacity—that they will be expected to live not just within the letter of the law but within the spirit of the law. For departmental heads who try to live off the old days of hiding information, building empires and trying to stop their employees from doing the right thing, the message will be made very clearly to them that whistleblowing is a protected activity and should be encouraged—although one would hope that it's not even necessary—amongst employees to expose unethical, dishonest, fraudulent behaviour.

Labor is committed to cracking down on misconduct and corruption in the banking and financial services sector. As I say, we've just had a royal commission with 76 recommendations coming out of it that we've committed to in principle, and we saw those opposite vote 26 times against this royal commission. We will keep saying it: those opposite voted against a banking royal commission 26 times, a banking royal commission that has exposed reams and reams and reams of misconduct and fraudulent behaviour within the banking and financial services sector—fraudulent, unethical behaviour that those opposite were prepared to see continue in this country, because they voted 26 times against even holding that banking royal commission, and they should hang their heads in shame for it.

These announcements build on our commitment for a banking royal commission implementation task force and to deliver an extra $25 million over the next two years for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to tackle corporate crime. We're serious about this. We called for the royal commission, and the royal commission happened only because Labor stuck to the government and made sure it happened. Now that the royal commission has happened, we will make sure—because those opposite won't—that the crooks are brought to book, and we'll be putting the resources in place to ensure that prosecutions happen. As part of this funding, Labor will appoint a special prosecutor to crack down on corporate criminals. The days of white-collar criminals having an easy ride will be over under a Labor government. We'll crack down on them, we'll fine them, we'll prosecute them and we'll put them in jail, where they belong. The choice is clear. While Labor fought for the banking royal commission—and we will crack down on white-collar crime—those opposite voted 26 times against that commission. We all remember that they wanted to give the same banks that have been exposed in that commission a nice, big, fat tax handout.

Labor will give a fair go to all Australians, including the whistleblowers of this country. I take my hat off to the whistleblowers for the courage that they show. I can't imagine how hard it must be to go to work, to come across this sort of information and then to say, 'I need to do something about this, because what I see before me is just so egregious it needs to be exposed.' And then, rather than just getting on with your life and having an easy life, you put yourself and your family's financial future in the gun when you put your hand up and say, 'I'm going to expose this.' That's an incredibly courageous thing to do, and I think people who are willing to take that risk deserve every protection from this parliament. That's why Labor, if elected to government, will create an Australian whistleblowing act and a whistleblowing authority to protect whistleblowers in this country.