Speeches

Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018

February 19, 2019

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (12:17):  I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018.

Imagine working for an organisation that you know is doing the wrong thing by its customers? That whether it's legally or morally wrong, you know that what you're seeing or taking part in is not in the interest of the people that the organisation should serve. You finally get the courage to tell people who have the ability to do something about it, but they won't guarantee you protection or discretion unless you follow a long list of criteria, including who you are, what you know and how you report it. So you decide not to report this behaviour out of fear for what it may do to you, your family or your reputation.

Now, stop imagining—because this isn't a hypothetical situation. This is the kind of behaviour that was uncovered during the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. It's hard to believe that some of the heartbreaking stories uncovered could have been prevented if we, the lawmakers in this building, had offered the right people the right incentives and the right supports to uncover disgusting, unlawful behaviour.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission defines a whistleblower as:

… an insider within an organisation, who reports misconduct or dishonest or illegal activity that has occurred within that same organisation.

When our major institutions and organisations are failing us, whistleblowers are the people we rely on to uphold a moral compass and uncover the wrongdoings of the people who think that they can get away with it—and they do get away with it.

Whistleblowers are an important part of stopping bad conduct.

Australia's whistleblowing regime, as it currently stands, is very complex. It's inconsistent, and it's split across a range of legislation, making it hard for whistleblowers to navigate. The website outlines five things that people need to do to be recognised and protected as a whistleblower: whistleblowers must be a current employer, they must report the information they know to the company they are exposing, they must provide their name when making the report, they must have proof of what they know, and the information they provide must be honest and genuine. In a nutshell, whistleblowers must report illegal or dishonest activity to the organisation committing the act and sign off at the bottom of the page.

It's no wonder we need an incentive to rectify this. Labor wants to encourage whistleblowers to come forward so that this culture of cover-up is stamped out. Sadly, those opposite seem to think that this amendment would encourage false accusations or employees blatantly lying about their organisation's practices for financial gain. Well, I say to them: have you ever spoken to a whistleblower? Who in their right mind would subject themselves to what whistleblowers go through—the ridicule, the doubt, the embarrassment and the humiliation—all for just having the gall and the gumption to stand up and do the right thing?

The royal commission exposed whistleblowers who paid, in many instances, a very big price for their bravery, and they've been vindicated in the shocking evidence presented through the royal commission. I'm proud to stand with a Shorten Labor government who will protect and, where it's deemed appropriate, reward brave Australians who blow the whistle on crime and corruption in their workplaces, including in the banking and financial sector. A Shorten Labor government will set up a whistleblower rewards scheme, establish a whistleblower protection authority, overhaul our whistleblowing laws with a single whistleblowing act, and fund a special prosecutor to bring corporate criminals to justice. We on this side of the chamber understand the sacrifices people have had to make to simply do the right thing. We want to say to them: we have your back.

The banking royal commission has highlighted appalling and criminal misconduct in the banking sector. That was only possible because brave whistleblowers and bank victims came forward and Labor listened. Labor will provide $3.2 million to immediately set up the whistleblower protection authority within the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. It would house five full-time positions dedicated to assisting whistleblowers through the disclosure process. These positions would help whistleblowers navigate the current disclosure process, assist them with finding the right agency to report it to, provide them with advice on their rights and options for redress, and help to promote broad awareness in the community about Australia's whistleblowing regime. This will help people trying to do the right thing.

I speak on this with some personal experience. I had a friend who was a whistleblower a number of years ago now. During what that person went through, not only on a professional level but also on a personal level, that person would often speak to me and say: 'I haven't slept for weeks. I'm wondering where it's up to and what's going to happen.' It impacted on that person's marriage, employment prospects, finances and mental health—it was truly a terrible thing to witness. It was well before I came to this place, but I often thought: 'Why would you do it? Why would you put yourself in that position?' Well, that friend of mine wanted to do it because what they saw was wrong, and they wanted to shine a light on that. I'm inspired by that friend of mine as I make this speech, thinking back to all those years ago. That person didn't receive any assistance, really, whatsoever. In fact, that person was almost ostracised professionally. But that person did the right thing. I want more people like my friend to feel that they can stand up for what they see to be wrong and speak out without being labelled a dobber, without being labelled as someone who just wants to cause a bit of trouble. We are seeing time and time again the power imbalance in these situations. So I say to whistleblowers: thank you for being brave; thank you for often putting your own personal progress on the line.

Sometimes I am actually asked this question myself about politics. People say, 'Why would you do it? Why would you subject yourself to that nonsense that goes on in parliament? Why would you want to be a politician?' Well, we want to be politicians in this place because we want to make a difference. We want Australia to be a better place. I say to people who are prepared to call out illegal, corrupt and immoral behaviour in our businesses and corporations, in our schools and in any of our public institutions across this country: good on you. Thank you for being brave. Thank you for having the moral fibre and the correct compass. Labor stands with you. Not only do we stand with you but we want to help you navigate the process. We think it should be fairer.

At the end of the day, those illegal and immoral practices pull us all down. They don't make our country more prosperous. They don't make it a better place for our children, our elderly or our most vulnerable people. They make our country a lesser place. We must stand by those people who want more and who want a better standard. Labor will do this. I implore the government to stand up and blow the whistle on your their behaviour, which really hasn't been up to par in these last few weeks. We looked to that banking royal commission to make a difference, and the Australian people are looking to us to implement those banking royal commission recommendations. It is time to learn from our mistakes and fix the mess.

I call on the Prime Minister to act in a prime ministerial fashion and back in what we have said. Please, you can't obfuscate and can't delay for any longer. We must have action. The people of Australia are calling on us to do that. It's with that that I really speak from the heart on this. I say to the whistleblowers: thank you for doing it, and Labor has your back.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST