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Rise of whistle-blower prompts call for caution

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More public sector whistle-blowers are making complaints and a new process allowing corporate grievances to also be aired has legal experts concerned.

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Data collated by the Queensland Ombudsman shows the number of Public Interest Disclosures (PIDs) made by whistle-blowers to public sector agencies increased from 798 in 2016-17 to 802 in 2017-18 – and then 1141 in 2018-19.

Almost three-quarters of PIDs related to alleged corrupt conduct, while data from the Crime and Corruption Commission shows the number of complaints it received fluctuated over the period.

According to the Ombudsman’s data, 41 per cent of all PID cases finalised in 2018-19 found the allegations to be substantiated, and 16 per cent were partly substantiated. However, a smaller proportion lead to regulatory or criminal action.

While the Ombudsman and other advocates, including Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, proclaim the PID process a success, there are concerns about the impact of a growing number of unsubstantiated cases.

The concerns come after the Australian Securities and Investment Commission this year rolled out a requirement for public companies, large proprietary companies, and corporate trustees of APRA-regulated superannuation entities to also have a whistle-blower policy.

In a Gadens law webinar last week, director Liam Hennessy, who has represented clients in several financial services investigations, said there had been a trend towards encouraging and better supporting whistle-blowers.

“People can blow the whistle for a variety of reasons,” Hennessy said.

“It is a very valuable source of information for those charged with regulating various entities but … just because someone makes a whistle-blowing complaint doesn’t mean that that whistle-blowing complaint is evidence of substantive wrongdoing.”

Hennessy, in conversation with Gadens partner Lionel Hogg, expressed concern that frivolous complaints could have an adverse impact not only on the individuals involved but the organisation as a whole. He and Hogg agreed that organisations, governments and regulators should seek to prioritise complaints with the most gravity, and that it was important to achieve the right balance and the right level of protections to improve organisational culture.

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