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Kiwi whistleblowers left vulnerable by 'weak, patchy, and out-of-date' legislation

Whistleblowers left vulnerable by "weak, patchy, and out of date" legislation.

"Weak, patchy and outdated" legislation leaves Kiwi whistleblowers unprotected and uncertain of processes, a leading professor says.

Professor A J Brown of Australia's Griffith University  led research which found the New Zealand public sector's systems for handling whistleblowers compared poorly to those in Australia.

When compared to the six Australian states, the New Zealand laws ranked above only Tasmania.

The Ombudsman is one of the authorities a whistleblower can approach with concerns.

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said the Protected Disclosure Act needed "a shot of adrenaline" and had never received the necessary support.

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he would consider applying new resources to address shortcomings in whistleblower protection.

"I will want to start next year with an application for funding for a full time position in my office, to be available to answer enquiries on the Protected Disclosure Act," he said.

Boshier said whistleblowing was not delivering the results he would like, which was demonstrated in the "enormous" amount of fraud coming from employees, particularly in the public sector.

"When you look at our history and the sheer amount of money we are losing, from people doing things unnoticed, surely we have problem," he said.

Joanne Harrison stole more than $720,000 of taxpayers' money during her employment at the Ministry of Transport.

"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? Where there no systems in place?"

The recent case of Ministry of Transport staffer Joanne Harrison revealed she stole more than $725,000 to pay off credit cards and her mortgage.

According to Brown's newly-released report, titled Strength of Organisational Whistleblowing Processes, 30 per cent of New Zealand's public agencies had no system in place for recording and tracking concerns, and 23 per cent had no support strategy for staff.

Professor A J Brown said the next phase of the research would delve more deeply into the operation of New Zealand and Australia's protected disclosure laws.

Only 36 per cent of agencies provided staff with a management-designated support person, and only one in five had processes for compensation or restitution if a whistleblower suffered negative outcomes.

Boshier said the Act did not require government agencies to have any set support or structure in place to deal with whistleblowers, but he would not be pushing for an overhaul of the Act itself.

"Our job, alongside the State Services Commission, is to provide structures and guidance, and give this the profile it should have," he said.

One lead researcher said whistleblowing was as important as ever, with recent high-profile cases like Edward Snowden's highlighting the need for robust protected disclosure processes.

New Zealand shares first-equal standing with Denmark in the Transparency International Index.

Boshier said Kiwis had benefited from their non-corrupt image, both in reputation and attractiveness to business. 

"To maintain this position, we must have best practice whistleblowing processes. People have to know they are safe and will not suffer detriment if they speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace, and that their concerns will be heard and acted upon if needed."

Brown said Kiwis were "lucky" to be rated so highly on transparency, but without overhaul of the Protected Disclosure Act they were gambling on goodwill to keep corruption at bay.

Brown said over the last decade, Australia had seen overhauls of protected disclosure legislation in most states, however New Zealand had seen no substantial amendments since 2000.

Amendments to the Act should focus on increasing procedural requirements for dealing with disclosures, protection of whistleblowers, support and compensation measures, Brown said.

The next stage of the research will involve looking at individual instances of protect disclosure, and will examine in greater depth how New Zealand organisations manage the reporting of wrongdoing.

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