Comment

Turn up the volume on whistleblowing

The Government is currently carrying out their promised review of whistleblowing laws, something that is long overdue and in need of bold reform, says Bryce Edwards. But he warns that politicians and officials seem to be trying not to rock the boat, leaving New Zealand vulnerable to corruption and other ethical wrongdoing.

Does New Zealand have a culture of speaking up about ethical breaches? It doesn’t seem so.

Despite having a very strong reputation for low corruption, New Zealanders are rather disinclined towards putting their “head above the parapet” and blowing the whistle on wrongdoing.

As a nation we are not particularly comfortable with complaining – we are far too polite and conflict-averse. As Gordon McLauchlan observed in his 1976 book, The Passionless People, New Zealanders don’t like to discuss contentious issues such as sex, religion or politics. So, bringing up ethical breaches in our workplace doesn’t really come easily to us.

This relaxed and passive ethos might well be our downfall when it comes to protecting the country’s low-corruption status. This is because the fight against the erosion of public service ethics and procedures, through to preventing corruption and bribery in the private sector, is highly dependent on individuals being inclined, and able, to blow the whistle when they see breaches. That means going out on a limb.

In addition to this cultural barrier, there’s another big factor barrier preventing people blowing the whistle on wrongdoing – the fact that New Zealand’s official processes for whistleblowing are so murky and unsafe.

This has been made more apparent by a report out this week by Michael Macaulay  and fellow researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, who have carried out a major survey in New Zealand and Australia about the experiences of whistleblowers. Their findings show that New Zealanders simply don’t know much about the official processes and laws covering what to do if they observe wrongdoing in the workplace. And many don’t believe that the current processes will be effective in dealing with the problems.

That’s why the Government has committed to reviewing New Zealand’s current rules – especially in terms of the Protected Disclosures Act 2000. State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has asked officials to come up with some ideas for reform and to consult with relevant stakeholders and the public.

Unfortunately, what they’ve come up with is highly disappointing. What reform advocates hoped would be bold ideas, turned out to be more like mild tinkering, and simply not up to the task required.

One commentator has labelled the recommendations from the State Service Commission as “butt covering measures” designed “to strangle off whistle blowers to protect the corruption they wish to hide.” Another more measured journalist writing on the proposals says they’re “feeble reforms”.

There’s no doubt that what the SSC has come up with will be an improvement on the current environment. The main recommendations are all sensible and uncontentious. Basically, they suggest that the laws be tidied up and better communicated, and that all public sector agencies have processes in place for whistleblowing to occur.

It’s really a question of whether these minor changes go far enough. And there’s the fact that the Commission has rejected more radical and thorough reforms. Most notably, the suggestion that whistleblowers be allowed to retain anonymity is ruled out, as are specific protections for employees against retaliation from their bosses when they speak out.

These more radical proposals are common in other countries, such as in certain states of Australia. And even more radical proposals such as rewarding whistleblowers (such as can be found in the United States), have also been rejected.

What’s also disappointing is the lack of thought about the role of the media in whistleblowing. In fact, it seems that the media haven’t even been consulted about the reforms. Yet the reality is many whistleblowers are forced to go to the media in an attempt to bring attention to wrongdoing. Obviously, the SSC wants to discourage this. That might be understandable, but it’s also futile and shows a lack of sympathy for whistleblowers who will naturally have to turn to journalists when official processes don’t work.

There also seems to be a reluctance by officials to extend the whistleblowing reforms to the private sector. This might seem a sensible decision in the short-term, given that the Government is already battling against low business confidence. But in the longer-term, businesses also face big risks from New Zealand’s lack of whistleblowing culture. The threat of ethical breaches, bribes, and corruption seeping into the private sector – especially relating to globalisation and increased trade links – means that corporates are going to have to find ways of clamping down on wrongdoing.

The whistleblowing reforms might come to be seen as a litmus test for the Government on whether they’re willing to walk their talk about their intentions of progressing the transparency and integrity agenda. So far, over the past year, the coalition has had all sorts of lapses in transparency. But here is Chris Hipkins’ opportunity to stamp his mark on the open government portfolio and show it’s not just “business as usual”, and that this Government is committed to New Zealand retaining its reputation for low corruption.

The public can also help him do the right thing. Submissions on the reforms to whistleblowing close on 7 December. See the State Services Commission's Have My Say site. 

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