Right now across Australia there are people who know about wrongdoings. The information they have could prevent fraud from undermining our financial system, yet many fail to speak up for fear of the repercussions. Doubts about whether they will be vilified or victimised, lose their job or become less employable often impede full disclosure.
It is well acknowledged that the Australian whistleblowing regime has many shortcomings. In recent years the media has highlighted that some of the worst treatment handed out to whistleblowers has come from organisations whose reputation and profile would lead us to expect a more enlightened behaviour. Its little wonder that Greg Medcraft, Chairman of ASIC, has commented that “at present in Australia, career oblivion often follows corporate whistleblowing.” Many would argue that Australia is falling well behind the US and UK who legislated stronger protections for whistleblowers years ago.
But help may be on its way. Next month the Parliamentary Joint Committee (PJC) on Corporations and Financial Services is due to report its findings in relation to Whistleblower protections in the corporate, public and not-for-profit sectors. We can expect to see new laws in place to protect whistleblowers in 2018.
At KPMG, we see firsthand the many issues facing whistleblowers and organisations. KPMG has provided a whistleblower hotline service for many corporates, public sector organisations and not-for-profit organisations over the last 20 years. On average, 80 percent of disclosers using the hotline currently choose to remain anonymous – often due to concern over repercussions. This includes a proportion of whistleblowers who agree to provide contact details to KPMG, whilst remaining anonymous to their employer.
Many of the whistleblowers that we speak with indicate they would not have reported the matter if they not been given the option of being anonymous. Further, we regularly see anonymous whistleblowers electing down the track to provide their name and contact details once they have spoken with our KPMG disclosure officer and understood the process to follow.
Obviously it is more difficult to protect a whistleblower if one does not know who they are. However, anonymous whistleblowers should be afforded the peace of mind to know that, should their identity become revealed during proceedings (either inadvertently or intentionally), they will be afforded the same protection as if they were to have provided their identity from the outset.
In our experience, anonymous reporting can at times present challenges with the quality of whistleblower information and ongoing communication. However, due to advances in technology, these factors are less of a concern, with anonymous whistleblowers now able to communicate easily and effectively with investigators and other relevant parties, using a secure web platform or over the phone using a unique reference number.
When considering protection mechanisms for anonymous reports, it should also be considered whether elements of the reported information may jeopardise the anonymity of a whistleblower. It is not uncommon for a whistleblower to declare an intention to be anonymous, whilst also inadvertently including information in their disclosure that could result in revealing their identity. It should be the responsibility of the receiving authority to review the information for such issues, and limit further dissemination of certain components of the report, in order to respect the anonymity wishes of the whistleblower.
Clearly Australia needs to strengthen the legislative protection for whistleblowers in order to address the inconsistencies and weaknesses evident in the current whistleblower regime. However legal reform is only one piece of the puzzle. Legislative change must be supported by better whistleblower programs within our Australian organisations, and widespread cultural change around the stigma that is often associated with being a whistleblower.