Although the high profile US whistleblowing cases, like those involving Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, rightly attract a lot of attention, it is also worth knowing that we have a protected disclosures regime in New Zealand. State Services Minister, Chris Hipkins, has recently announced that the Government is reviewing the protections offered by the Protected Disclosures Act 2000 – the so-called “whistleblower” legislation.
The purpose of the Protected Disclosures Act is to encourage people to report serious wrongdoing in their workplaces by providing protection to them when they “blow the whistle”. Serious wrongdoing includes criminal offences, unlawful or corrupt use of public money and resources and conduct that poses a serious risk to public health, safety, the environment or maintenance of the law. Whistleblowing usually involves the employee having to release confidential information. If a leak is protected under the Act, then, in theory, the leaker is protected from legal liability and cannot be victimised or dismissed from his or her employment.
The new Government believes that New Zealand’s whistleblowing regime is patchy and out of date. The Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, has said that the Protected Disclosures Act needs “a shot of adrenalin” and that it has not delivered the results he would have liked. He has pointed to the case of Joanne Harrison, a Ministry of Transport employee who stole more than $720,000 of taxpayer’s money during her employment: “You have to ask how it wasn’t detected by someone else who might have blown the whistle. Were they scared? Did they not know? Were there no systems in place?” According to a recent report by Griffith University in Australia, entitled Strength of Organisational Whistleblowing Processes, thirty per cent of New Zealand’s public agencies have no system in place for recording and tracking concerns, and 23 per cent have no support strategy for staff.
Chris Hipkins has said it is crucial for employees to feel safe reporting misconduct. The Government is, therefore, looking at introducing penalties for retaliation against whistleblowing, rewards and compensation for whistleblowing, whether people who blow the whistle on wrongdoing to the media should be protected, and what body could oversee whistleblowing complaints. The initial discussion document is going to be put out for public consultation.
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