The persecution of whistleblowers in this country has become the focus of intense public debate of late.
There’s the pending trial of David McBride for exposing war crimes similar to the Brereton report, as well as those of Witness K and lawyer Bernard Collaery for speaking truth to power over a 2004 incident involving our government bugging the East Timorese cabinet to gain in oil negotiations.
The mistreatment of whistleblowers, however, is certainly not confined to prosecutions. Think of Julian Assange locked up in London’s Belmarsh Prison, while the Australian political class looks the other way, or the harassment of ABC journalists over publishing the McBride revelations.
Then there’s the case of Australian Taxation Office whistleblower Richard Boyle, who’s facing charges over calling out aggressive debt recovery practices.
Prior to going public, Boyle had attempted to raise the issue internally, under the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth).
In a twist to his case, the initial 66 charges laid against the former Australian Public Service (APS) employee were recently dropped down to 24, after a parliamentary report found the internal investigation of his public interest disclosure had been “superficial”.
Two sets of laws
Indeed, there’s a stark difference in the way that whistleblowers exposing the corruption of the powerful are treated, compared to the manner in which the authorities tend to deal with those in power who are caught out involved in suspect goings-on.
Take Bridget McKenzie and the sports rorts scandal. Back in January this year, the then Australian agriculture minister and deputy leader of the federal Nationals became the leading political face caught up in the affair.
McKenzie was found to have overseen the distribution of $100 million in sports grants to targeted Coalition seats in the leadup to the May 2019 election. The Australian National Audit Office found that there had been distributional bias in the way the public money had been awarded.
However, despite the findings of the auditor general, McKenzie didn’t face any real sanctions. Rather she resigned her position as a member of the Morrison cabinet, as well as her Nationals leadership role, while she still continues to serve as a Senator in parliament.
On deaf ears
Over recent years, Ken Carroll has blown the whistle internally on alleged corrupt practices in two Commonwealth government departments.
Having found the avenues and protections open to whistleblowers stacked in favour of those the complaints are raised against, he now wants to see the establishment of an independent body charged with investigating such complaints.
Carroll is a former Queensland police officer of almost two decades, who made the shift into the Australian Public Service in 2013. He has worked within the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Carroll about how the system is set up to suppress any allegations of corrupt practices, the experience he had when he attempted to expose wrongdoings, as well as the cost of all this to the public.
Firstly, you were employed by two Commonwealth government departments as an Australian Public Service officer beginning in 2013. You subsequently sought to blow the whistle internally about corruption matters within those departments.
Ken, what has that entailed? And what’s the response been like?
I made the complaints internally in relation to alleged criminal offences and breaches of the code of conduct. I also made complaints through the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth).
However, it seemed to me that the focus is on discrediting the complaints, rather than anything else, as the investigations weren’t objectively or professionally completed.
To my knowledge, some of my complaints weren’t investigated whatsoever. And they’re very scant on providing the investigation reports. In fact, they don’t want to.
It’s very difficult – even with a lot of supporting evidence – to have criminal complaints investigated internally.
I believe you went on to take the complaints further than the departments?
Yes. I’ve also taken the matter to the AFP. They won’t investigate anything unless it has been reported through the Commonwealth department in the first instance and then referred to the AFP by the actual department.
But the department is not going to refer a matter to the AFP if the department deems that no offences have taken place. And that seems to be the cultural norm within the departments I’ve worked for.
I also took the matters to the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Public Service Commission. They would either not investigate the matters or only partially investigate a small portion of them.
So, you had to push to get these matters internally investigated?
Well, I wouldn’t say push. I’d say the system has been engineered to have complaints unsubstantiated, regardless of how much credible and supporting evidence the complainant can provide.
There’s a culture of not investigating matters to the extent that they should be. So, as a result, no matter how much evidence you can provide, your complaints aren’t substantiated.
This is supposed to be a cornerstone of democracy. If the Australian Public Service can’t alert us to these sorts of issues, it erodes our democracy.
The public isn’t aware of what’s going on. And the public is paying for this system of coverups.
The vast majority of the public wouldn’t agree that this should be the way to handle internal investigations.
This is particularly so when it’s criminal matters involving systemic corruption of upper management within several different Commonwealth government agencies and by politicians within the government of the day.
The process seems to be to deem complaints as unsubstantiated, particularly those raised against management, higher management and/or politicians, which is the case in my matters.
You’ve taken your concerns still further, as you’ve been in contact with specific politicians. What’s their response been like?
I’ve taken it to a lot of politicians. First of all, I took it to the minister at the time, who referred me back to the AFP, which, as I said, wasn’t able to help.
I also took it to federal senators in Queensland and all MPs around Australia, besides two who were being investigated for fraud at the time.
So, it was 148 MPs. And I received assistance from one. But it was his last day on the job because he was being replaced over a citizenship error.
I’d written to everyone, and was gobsmacked that none of the politicians cared, except for the one, who couldn’t be of assistance.
You claim the system in Australia simply allows corruption to “flourish unabated”. So, what would you say is the cost of this and the resulting coverups for Australian taxpayers – and not just in terms of the financial costs?
There’s a cost to our democracy. How do you put a price on that?
We have large government organisations that aim to coverup corruption to protect the people at the top, including politicians. And those are the ones that I’ve worked in.
Taxpayers are paying for this all the time. And it’s unbeknownst to them. This is deceitful and extremely costly. We’re talking millions and millions.
There’s been a lot of focus on the government’s treatment of whistleblowers over recent years. There’s David McBride, Bernard Collaery and Richard Boyle.
How would you sum up the way whistleblowers are being treated at present?
It’s absolutely frightening. There’s a culture within the APS that’s ruled by fear. If you dare speak up, you get punished.
I was speaking up not just for myself and the rule of law, but for everyone who is paying for this. Anyone could find themselves in a situation like mine.
Unfortunately, whistleblowers are being treated disgracefully. From my perspective, whistleblowers are treated like rubbish.
The protections that are embedded in the Public Interest Disclosure Act are useless if the complainant is targeted for reprisals from the upper hierarchy of the department.
We should have an independent organisation that oversees all whistleblower complaints within government and protections should be used to the extent that can allow for that.
Because, in my case, I’ve had reprisal after reprisal.
Earlier this year, you raised issue over the government’s handling of the sports rorts affair and the treatment of Bridget McKenzie as an example of how the system is failing when it comes to dealing with corruption.
Can you speak on how this highlights systemic failures?
I was underscoring that there are two laws in Australia: one for them and one for us. If you’re within the political party, your behaviour can be outside the law and nothing will happen.
If these people were treated the same way as I have been for reporting and speaking up against systemic corruption, it would be a completely different story.
There’s a lot of elitism and paying homage to the political party and not the people. Politicians have been entrusted to help the public. They are there to serve us. We are not there to serve them.
The reports of rorts and other things that people have done wrong over the last year is scary. But they kept their jobs, while all I was doing was standing up to keep things right for everyone. And, as I said, I’ve had reprisal after reprisal.
There’s not one law for all people in this country, unfortunately.
And lastly, Ken, how do you now stand on the matters you were trying to expose? What do you want to see happen?
It’s not going to go anywhere at this point. The system is engineered not to reveal any wrongdoing by upper management of the departments concerned and by the politicians involved.
The people who have committed some of the offences are involved in the management of the investigations into these offences and also in reprisal action against the complainant.
How can this be called independent? It’s criminal.
What I would like is an independent panel to investigate it. I have total faith that an independent panel would find the matter hasn’t been investigated properly. If it had been, these people would have at least been interviewed.
There is a clear criminal element within the top hierarchy of the Commonwealth government departments I have worked within and the government of the day.
But it’s literally impossible to have these matters properly investigated and the offenders brought to justice in this current system that protects the offenders and punishes the complainants.
It’s a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. It leads to more corruption. And it doesn’t lead us to more open and transparent government.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.