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Integrity in Australia: Whistleblowing and Leadership Commitment

Speaking up can unmask a range of wrongdoing – but only when accompanied by effective leadership, well-thought-through embedding of speak-up values and a well-evidenced commitment to support the reporter.

All of these aspects are professionally deployed or assisted when working alongside an external reporting service such as Report it Now®.

As everyone charged with responsibility for risk, people, culture, health and safety will know, speaking up is early intervention at its best. Once a concern is raised and an investigation begins, the first steps are underway to prevent trust from spiralling down.

Smart money knows that when reputations need to be rebuilt, major investment and a long-term outlook are needed. In business, ambulances at the bottom of the cliff are wise to be avoided.

On this basis, when the Rebuilding Trust and Integrity in the Public Service conference opens in Sydney, attendees and Australians in general might be forgiven for asking ‘How did it get this bad?’.

A single answer won’t suffice but there are clues in the conference themes.

Conference speakers appear under the themes of ‘Trust, Integrity and Conflicts of Interest’, ‘ Creating Trustworthy Public Institutions,’ ‘Making Ethical Government Appointments’ etc. All of these themes reinforce the role of values – specifically the significance of applying ethical value to business or public sector behaviour.

The selection of keynote speaker Regina Featherston, a senior lawyer at the Whistleblower Project speaks volumes.

On the homepage of Whistleblower Projects, the assertion stands proud:

“Whistleblowers make Australia a better place. By speaking up about human rights abuses, government wrongdoing and corporate misfeasance, whistleblowers play an important role in our democracy. Unfortunately, many people who do speak up face reprisal for doing so.” 

The sentiments are inarguable. As is the need to rebuild trust once it is lost.

Philip Hind, principal of Melbourne-based Hindsite Ventures and former ATO knowledge manager and national program manager, Superstream (which won a 2016 Prime Minister’s Award), commented in a research paper, that trust isn’t binary: ‘It’s not a case of either you have it or you don’t’. 

Hind goes on to say that how we assess the degree of trustworthiness of an entity depends, in part, on our perception of what is at stake.

When it comes to Australia’s public sector there is probably consensus that there is a lot at stake.

Sadly, according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, no single institution across Australia has succeeded in reaching trusted territory for yet another consecutive year.

Worse, more than half (59%) of Australian respondents considered that institutional leaders are purposefully misleading their fellow Australians. 

Science also comes in for a hiding, as respondents see science as being under (read ‘caving in to’) political pressure. As an example, 64% of Australians believe that the Government lacks adequate understanding to effectively regulate emerging innovations.

This is a long way from the Edelman findings of 2010 when, for example, the Armed Forces, universities, and the Police earned the three top spots for confidence.

It is well established that trust has to be earned over time with active demonstrations of trustworthy behaviour. In fact, trust and whistleblowing are inextricably linked, especially when an investigation is called for. A whistleblower must believe that their report will be read or their voice heard. A further benefit of an independent service is its independence, which helps build trust (as opposed to in-house reporting which often contributes to apprehension and fear).

Right now, a scrappy public sector brawl—which has the whiff of the gutter—is tumbling into the public domain. The ATO is accused of various bullying tactics. The allegations hold that the Tax Practitioners Board was firmly in their sights and effort was directed at undermining the effectiveness of the TPB’s investigation into former PwC partner Peter Collins and PwC. The scrap is unpalatable and promises to remain in the headlines while simultaneously distracting from corrupt behaviour within PwC.

Repeatedly, Australians must ask why a whistleblower didn’t come forward. Why weren’t the values expected of the public or private sector so keenly embedded that the most important thing to do was to report corruption or bullying, unveil the evidence and deep dive into both prosecution and future prevention?

Most people want to work in an environment where they know they are safe, where their values align, and where ethics are taken seriously – from the tone at the top, to the managers in the middle, and everyone in between. As Greens senator Barbara Pocock, who is on the senate committee that uncovered the scandal asserts, even “regulators need employment security, proper access to data, and support for their investigations”.

Had an external reporting service such as Report It Now—and a case management system such as EthicsPro®—been engaged, they would have had it from the get-go.

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