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Australia’s Friendly Environment for Whistleblowers

Australia’s Friendly Environment for Whistleblowers

Gerd Schröder-TurkHe was on a long-haul flight from the United States to Luxembourg in 2019, when he fell asleep while watching the film. Pretty Woman

The 1990 classic is hardly a tearjerker, and Schröder-Turk, a professor of maths and statistics at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, is hardly one to be emotional. However, the events of the past months had been devastating for his mental health. He just heard that he was being sued to recover more than his entire lifetime’s earnings. Schröder-Turk and his young family were now staring down the barrel of financial ruin.

“I found it very hard to accept that someone who knew me would be willing to take an action that they knew would threaten my livelihood,” the academic told VICE World News. 

As the gravity of his situation sank in at 42,000 feet, Schröder-Turk was confronted with the unsettling truth that this “intimidatory and existential personal attack” was revenge for speaking out in defense of the students he cared so deeply for.

Just a few months prior, he made his first appearance on the scene in May 2019. ABC’s Four CornersMurdoch University waived standard English language proficiency requirements to allow international students to study at the institution. 

These students were treated as cash cows. Failing in higher than usual numbersThey were not treated well by the university. Schröder-Turk, a father of two children, was confronted with students disclosing self-harm and extreme financial hardship to him. 

He was quickly removed from his teaching duties after he became the national current affairs program’s frontman. Months later, the university—which the same year turned over $406.9 million revenue—The multimillion-dollar lawsuit was filed against the academic-turned-whistleblower. Murdoch University would eventually Under public pressure, crumble to drop the lawsuit, admitting defeat in June 2020 and promising an independent governance review at the university, the psychological damage Schröder-Turk endured could not be withdrawn.

Schröder-Turk’s case speaks to the hostile climate endured by whistleblowers in Australia more generally. Despite being one of the world’s leading liberal democracies, whistleblowing—the act of exposing immoral or illegal acts by government, private or public corporations—remains a high-risk action to take in the country. While there are many good reasons to be a whistleblower, it is not the best. United StatesAnd European UnionAlthough Australia has increased protections to empower and reward whistleblowers it still favours secrecy. Those working in government-run organizations are the ones who are most protected. 

This has led to a system which discourages whistleblowers from speaking publically and fails to defend them when it does. While reform is possible, Federal agenda for 2022, local whistleblowers, and the groups that represent them, aren’t convinced the new protections go far enough. 

“Despite Australia’s whistleblowing laws, we know that four in five people who speak up experience some form of retaliation,” Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at Human Rights Law Centre told VICE World News. 

“Whistleblowers make Australia a better place. They should not be punished, but protected. But right now, too many whistleblowers are suffering.” 

Whistleblower protections in Australia are generally lacking, but the pace of reform is different between the private sector and the public sector. Government institutions offer a particularly hostile environment for those who dare expose wrongdoing. 

Phillip Moss was the former Integrity Commissioner in 2016. concluded public sector laws were ‘failing’ Australian whistleblowers.His 2013 Review of Public Interest Disclosure Act included 33 recommendations. These included simpler legislative procedures, more investigative agencies to provide additional avenues of disclosure, and a review at least once every three to five.

Five years later, the government is still in place finally announced plans to act on Moss’s recommendations and improve whistleblower protections in order to repair “trust and accountability in the public sector.” The public sector reforms, which won’t come into play until after the May 2022 election, are set to come further in line with the sturdier protections already afforded to those in the private sector. Since 2020 Whistleblowers who expose corporate dirty laundryYou are protected from being fired, sued, and discriminated against. Australian companies must also have an effective whistleblower policy. Otherwise, they will be subject to a $126,000 fine. 

“The law’s failure to protect whistleblowers who go to the media is a clear indication that the law is oriented to domesticating dissent rather than empowering the whistleblower…”

Yet even if the government is making moves towards bringing the public sector in line with the private, Whistleblowers Australia, a non profit organisation supporting would-be and current whistleblowers, warns that current internal protections for private sector disclosures are “inadequate” and “largely imaginary.” 

Their concern is that the system seeks to keep public interest disclosures internal to the system, disengaging whistleblowers from speaking with the media and external regulators like ombudsmans and parliamentary committees. 

To be protected, the whistleblower must first complain to the company management, human resources, an internal regulator, or one of two external regulators. Whistleblowers must notify the original regulator within 90 days of bringing their grievance to the public. 

These restrictions inhibit the ability of people in the private sector to turn to the media, which remains one of the great allies of whistleblowers—aiding in dialling up the pressure on politicians, spreading awareness and shining a light on unchecked problems. 

“The law’s failure to protect whistleblowers who go to the media is a clear indication that the law is oriented to domesticating dissent rather than empowering the whistleblower or putting priority on action against wrongdoers,” writes Brian Martin, an emeritus professor of social sciences and Vice President of Whistleblowers AustraliaIn Illusions of Whistleblower Protect.

Public support can also be fueled by media presence. This provides whistleblowers a financial and psychological cushion to withstand a battle David vs Goliath. 

“When you blow the whistle, you’re up against well-resourced and powerful institutions who will try to downplay and dispute everything you say and that will try to discredit your motivations and credibility,” said Schröder-Turk. 

Schröder-Turk, whose case was covered widely by national media, believes he “came out good because of the public support,” crediting the 30,000 plus people who signed a Change.org petitionThe National Tertiary Education Union organized the #IStandWithGerd Campaign.

“It felt like my case had changed from a case between me and Murdoch University to a case of Murdoch University vs the rest of the world,” he said.

Public sector secrets are more difficult to expose with the help media. In June 2019, federal police conducted two high-profile raids on journalists for “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret.” 

The home of News Corp journalists Annika Smethurst was raidedShe was referring to a story she had published last year in which she revealed top secret emails between government departments that discussed plans to increase surveillance of Australian citizens. 

Soon after, ABC’s Sydney headquarters were raided for publishing secret defense documents exposing disturbing allegations of misconduct by the Australian armed forces in Afghanistan.

VICE World News reached Amanda Stoker (assistant minister to the attorney general), who has previously reaffirmed the Australian government’s commitmentto improve whistleblower protections, but did not receive any response at the time it was published. 

Police raids are only one of the most severe and public consequences. The consequences for those who expose less public wrongdoing in Australia are often much less obvious. 

Despite all the legal protections, approximately 85% of whistleblowers suffer psychologically and socially due to ostracisation tactics used by individuals and institutions accused of wrongdoing—a slow-burning form of social retaliation that is hard to clamp down on.

This was also my experience. Dr Michael Cole, a now-retired neonatal consultant doctor who “blew the whistle” on what he regarded as a dysfunctional—even dangerous—leadership at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, Australia. 

Cole explained to VICE World News in 2008 that a director at the neonatal unit where he worked waited eight hours before he could receive whole blood. The emergency exchange transfusion was performed on a newborn baby. The newborn suffered severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, seizures, deafness and blindness—a tragic outcome which was preventable through an earlier exchange and the use of packed cells, he says.

Cole sounded the alarm, time and time again, about what he says were the doctor’s lack of clinical skill and incompetent leadership, taking place behind closed doors at the state’s largest neonatal intensive care unit. Cole claims that he was subjected to years of disciplinary investigations as well as psychiatric evaluations in retaliation for speaking up. 

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In the disciplinary investigations, he says his professional integrity was condemned by management as “open criticism of colleagues” and “intolerable behaviour.” An independent review, which Cole accuses Westmead of having coerced, suggested he may have possible borderline personality disorder. Later, when applying for worker’s compensation, Cole was evaluated by two other psychiatrists—neither of whom suggested he had a psychiatric disorder.

Cole believes this entire ordeal was meant to destroy him psychologically. He was subject to five years of Westmead’s retaliation, before finally quitting his job because he was stressed. 

“Colleagues would make fantasy, false statements about me,” remembered Cole. “It caused a huge amount of anxiety. I was put on anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants.”

Cole has been away from Westmead for almost ten years. He assesses that the higher heart and breathing rate he is experiencing when revisiting the details of his case for the interview is “a sort of PTSD response.” 

While Cole’s experience came prior to Australia’s overhaul of whistleblower laws, he is skeptical of the current private sector and incoming public sector protections that encourage whistleblowers to rely on internal channels. According to Cole, human resource departments are unable to investigate disclosures without fear of favour. 

“They look like they should, but they don’t and they can’t,” Cole warned future whistleblowers. “HR is not your friend.” 

VICE World News reached out to the Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s press office for a response to Cole’s accusations, but they did not respond at the time of publishing. 

Ostracisation like this is the most common retaliation for speaking out, fuelled by social norms that show disdain for “dobbers,” a culture of mateship and a dangerous framing of whistleblowers as inherent traitors. 

Ostracisation occurs when “co-workers turn away rather than saying hello, when they sit at another table during tea breaks and lunch, when they stop dropping by to have a chat, and when they make excuses to leave whenever you approach them,” Whistleblowers Australia’s Martin writes in A Practical Guide to Whistleblowing

Advocates sought to change these harmful social norms. A Report by the Australian Institute of CriminologyTo encourage positive public perceptions of whistleblowers, the Australian Labor Party recommended an annual citation, or award, where whistleblowers were acknowledged and thanked. The Australian Labor Party proposed a rewards-based “bounty system,” similar to that used in the United States, to offer financial rewards for those who speak out. 

“Good laws on paper are just the start,” said Pender. “We need a cultural change in the way we treat people who are doing the right thing by calling out wrongdoing.”

But in Australia’s current climate, both Cole and Schröder-Turk’s experiences remain cautionary tales for those who want to speak out publicly. Both want people to understand what is at stake, and how dangerous whistleblowing can be.

“Most people just think they are doing the right thing and behaving like a good citizen or employee and before they know it, they are drowning in quicksand,” said Cole, adding that he understands why people stay silent if they have a mortgage, a career and a family to protect. 

As for Schröder-Turk, with the gift of hindsight, he counts himself as a “lucky whistleblower.” Today, he still teaches at the university, sits as a member of the Academic Council of Murdoch University and is widely respected for his contribution to academic and ethical integrity. He still struggles with his identity as a whistleblower. 

“The whistleblowing becomes a ‘tag’ that will stick with you, and one that you will find difficult to ‘let go’,” he said. “It continues to occupy you when the world has forgotten.”

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