NZ's attitudes to whistleblowers

ROB STOCK
Last updated 13:58 18/11/2012

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In light of the Pike River inquiry, Rob Stock investigates New Zealanders' response to those who blow the whistle on corruption and poor practice. He also asks why other New Zealanders keep quiet.

Heroes or pond-life with an agenda?

Our attitudes to whistleblowers are complex.

Most newspaper readers hail legitimate whistleblowers as heroes of society against abuses by businesses and government departments, a survey by Sunday Star-Times has found, and there is widespread recognition of the bravery it takes to risk job and vilification for speaking out.

But there are also those who believe some whistleblowers act for the wrong motives, and that state and commercial secrets must be respected except in the most extreme circumstances.

The survey found that New Zealand's whistleblower protection laws (The Protected Disclosures Act) are far from clear to the populace, and far from well known, with the survey showing around eight in 10 people do not know what legal protection whistleblowers have, and in what circumstances they apply.

Equally unknown is that the Office of the Ombudsmen is a body able to take anonymous complaints which it can then investigate or pass on to a different agency to investigate.

In ignorance of its existence, some readers suggested creating an office able to take anonymous complaints, and indeed, on October 2, the ombudsman created a guide to making protected disclosures.

It's an appropriate response to Pike River, which has put a focus on why no-one at or connected with the mine blew the whistle on the health and safety breaches there. But a lack of information on whistleblowing is only one part of why it is so uncommon in New Zealand, with many readers expressing admiration for whistleblowers and acknowledging the risks they take. "It's a necessary thing and I admire the people who are brave enough to do so," said one reader.

"I feel very strongly in the positive about whistleblowing in NZ. We live in a country where too many people who should be accountable are not, as often people are afraid to speak out for fear of job loss/humiliation," said another.

The reasons for fear are repeated time and again by respondents.

One reader encapsulated them neatly: "In NZ you need to be exceptionally brave to be a whistleblower. You risk your job. Your boss and fellow workers will hate you, your bad reputation will follow you if you try to change worksites. It's too scary - better to keep your head down."

Some areas of employment are seen as particularly unforgiving.

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One reader characterised his time in the Wellington bureaucracy. "I think it is an incredibly important aspect of public life, but one that is met with intimidation, bullying and scaremongering. The number of times I have heard 'You'll never work in government/Wellington again if you blow the whistle' is insane. The number of people I have met in the public service who have witnessed corruption, bullying and massive managemental failures (including what I have seen myself in four departments) is huge - almost anyone below management level will be able to tell tales of terror and incompetence. We need more protection for whistleblowers to tell their important stories!"

The risk of vilification, including by the media, is another risk commonly mentioned.

As one says: "The spin machines that surround businesses and organisations seems to be the tendency to portray whistle- blowers as lunatics or people with a grudge, and to delve into the whistleblower's personal history to discredit what they are saying."

Some perceive that whistleblowers risk too much when the act of standing up is likely to elicit nothing but inaction from bosses or regulators.

One said: "Imagine if you had 'blown the whistle' on safety in the Pike River coal mine. Even after the recent findings by the royal commission, the directors and management team are still in denial. Also no heads are rolling at the previous Ministry of Labour. That is the sort of arrogance a whistleblower in New Zealand faces."

Many believe that whistleblowers are essential for effective government and commerce, saving the country from waste and loss.

"Whistleblowers are an essential part of business in this country. Recent history has shown we have a multitude of untrustworthy and dishonest managers and business owners and whistleblowers are often the last line of defence for unsuspecting investors," said one.

Some go further and see whistleblowing as something beyond useful and admirable, but as being a mark of personal of integrity, even as a duty to the nation.

"Every responsible citizen should be prepared to risk his job to expose corruption, slack or zero safety provisions, false advertising or tax evasion. If sufficient evidence is exposed, that person should be protected by Police and the Courts."

The onus on individuals has grown, some believe, as the decline of unionism has removed from many a valuable whistleblowing channel.

Many distinguish between legitimate whistleblowing and whistleblowing that is contrary to national interests, impedes the functioning of business and government, and is at times an act of self-interest of vindictiveness.

While there is a strong consensus that human safety is always a justification for going to the authorities, going to the media is not always helpful and it should be a last resort.

Loyalty to an employer, some believe, means that people should only go to a regulator or the press once they have tried to fix the issue with their bosses.

As one reader said: "I admire the moral courage of anyone who speaks up for the greater good. The concerned person should first raise the issue with management to give it a chance to correct the problem. If no luck, then the whistle should be blown."

That is the perspective of the Protected Disclosures Act, though it may be unrealistic in some circumstances. Should a person raise the issue internally, get knocked back and then a regulator come storming in citing an anonymous tip, it isn't going to be too hard to work out who is to blame, or at least for vocal staff members to fall under suspicion.

The proper functioning of businesses and government departments requires employers to expect sensitive information is kept confidential, and it is only in cases of severe wrongdoing, or risk to health, that many people feel whistleblowing is acceptable.

"I am OK with whistleblowing, but not with leaks. If someone detects illegal or immoral or unsafe behaviour, whistleblowing is fine if there is no other way to remedy the situation. Leaking info just because you can, or because you don't like what's being done is wrong," said one reader.

- Sunday Star Times

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