Tax office whistlblower case has important implications

photo by James Elsby: ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle.

Contributed form Victoria

On Tuesday 4 October Richard Boyle was in an Adelaide district court conducting a hearing on whether he should face charges and potential jail time over 24 charges, including using a listening device for private conversations, disclosing protected information, and recording someone’s tax file number.

Boyle was not out to rob anyone. He is a whistleblower who had collected evidence of wrongdoing in the Australian Tax Office. The hearing is to determine whether the Public Interest Disclosure Act (the PID) provides exonerates him or he still has to face the charges made against him.

The hearing was adjourned, after the judge Liesl Kudelka asked the parties to talk and try to establish some greed assembly of the facts of the charges.

The PID is being tested. There is real concern that it lacks teeth and therefore not fit for the stated purpose of giving whistleblowers protection. The concern is that the protections offered are inadequate and full of loopholes. This makes it harder for Boyle and will put pressure on others who wish to expose wrongdoing.

In this case, the issue was the use of heavy handed methods to collect alleged debt. Most of this was used against small businesses. As a witness to what was going on, Richard Boyle decided to act. In other circumstances, what he did would have been considered serious violations of privacy. But when they are connected to providing proof of wrongdoing by public officials, should the public interest take precedence?

The point is, without taking extraordinary measures the evidence would not have been there to present and the wrongdoing would have continued. Without allowing unauthorized access and disclosure of relevant information, any law supposed to protect whistleblowers in not worth the paper its written on.

Richard Bole has already had the threat of jail hanging over his head for four years and fronted up a succession of court appearances. If the hearing rules against him, it will mean facing the charges put against him.

Supporters and human rights activists are calling on Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, to intervene and stop the prosecution. Although he has the authority, he has not used it in this case. He should. The Boyle case carries considerable implications that will apply to other disclosures.

Politicians tend towards secrecy and minimising the transparency of what they and those in their departments do, and they rarely look favourably on whistleblowers. In contrast, the public needs them as a check on wrongdoing.

The public perception is that there is a lot of wrongdoing about, and this has forced the move to establish a federal corruption commission. The Boyle case and this are related.

At least a previous court had lifted the previous suppression order, which meant the media couldn’t report on the case. Australia has seen a spike in cases being heard behind closed doors. This is dangerous.

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