By Steve Davies
Why it matters: During the 2022 elections the Labor Party promised to create a National Integrity Commission and reform public sector whistle blower laws.
Despite those promises the newly elected Labor Government is allowing the prosecution against Australian Taxation Office whistle blower, Mr Richard Boyle, to continue.
They are doing so using the very laws (Public Interest Disclosure Act), they vowed to reform. This is illogical. Worse still, it is driven by the moral the disengagement that has infected government and causes great harm. All funded with our taxes.
Look deeper: For decades Australia’s Federal Government had no whistle blower laws. Major political parties saw no need for it. Neither did the Australian Public Service.
The first laws, (Public Interest Disclosure Act) were passed in 2013 by the Gillard Labor Government.
The ultra-conservative Liberal Government of Tony Abbott was elected later that year. The Liberals remained in power until 2022. They hollowed out open government and freedom of information. The creation of a positive culture of public interest disclosures (whistle blowing), was snuffed out at birth.
Labor’s Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, recently dropped the prosecution of lawyer Bernard Colleary for allegedly releasing classified information about alleged spying operations in East Timer.
In contrast, he is refusing to drop charges against Tax Office whistle blower Richard Boyle. Mr Boyle’s alleged crime? Blowing the whistle on unethical debt recovery practices in the Australian Taxation Office.
Mr Boyle has been subjected to hostile treatment since 2016 when he first raised issues within the Taxation Office concerning the aggressive and unethical use of garnishee powers against small business owners.
The typical pattern is that when public servants such as Mr Boyle raise serious issues, they are heavily managed and documented. As they pursue matters through due process, they experience more hostility. This gets worse when matters enter the legal battlefield.
The problem: Government agencies own the rigged whistle blowing battlefield from the start. Whistle blowers, at even a low level, are in a shooting gallery. All paid for by taxpayers.
The big questions: Why is the newly elected Labor Government choosing to go down a path that contradicts its election promises?
Why do otherwise good politicians and officials sanction behaviours and practices that cause harm to people and corrupt government organisations?
The Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus has stated:
“The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) takes decisions about the commencement of prosecutions independently of government,” … and the Attorney-General’s powers under section 71 were “reserved for very unusual and exceptional circumstances.”
The content of those two statements made by the Attorney General raises questions concerning the specific (and insidious), mechanisms of *moral disengagement:
The CDPP making decisions independently of government seems logical. However, in practice it is enabling the “diffusion of responsibility”.
The second statement also “displaces responsibility” by asserting that the “powers under section 71 were reserved for unusual circumstances.”
However, follow up reviews found that Mr Boyle’s allegations were valid and ATO investigations into his disclosures superficial. This shows that the situation is anything but usual.
In the light of the Labor Government’s election promises the Attorney General’s decision makes no sense. On that basis alone legal action against all whistle blowers should cease. It’s time for government to reflect deeply on the mechanisms of moral disengagement.
Taking action: What’s missing in all of this is a lens through which to understand and judge the behaviours, practices and actions of politicians and public servants. Such a lens is needed to keep government, our society and lives healthy.
The Morrison Government and COVOD-19 are tragic and dramatic proof that we all need a lens to help us cut thorough the politics, spin, denials and deception.
Moral disengagement was mentioned earlier. That term and the two mechanisms mentioned come from the lifelong work of the world-renowned Professor Albert Bandura (1925 – 2021).
His work spans two centuries and his book Moral Disengagement – How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves pulls together a lifetime of research, learning and teaching.
The mechanisms of moral disengagement provide a powerful lens for us to use to assess and judge the behaviours, practices and actions of politician public servants.
They provide a means to help us all judge the policies and services they provide to us. The very direction they seek to take our nation.
More than that using the mechanisms of moral disengagement provides a common foundation that we can use to talks and judge together.
At the moment the stories of the public, public servants and whistle blowers are isolated, untold and rarely listened to. They can be ignored, twisted or picked off one by one.
We all know there is a lot wrong. Politicians and public servants? They are all trapped in systems and institutions that are infected with moral disengagement.
Too many are a part of the problem. Too many forget that silence means consent.
Senator Rex Patrick – Richard Boyle Sequence.
Steve Davies is an organisational development and social research professional, and an ethical government advocate.
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