Contributed by Ben Wilson
The pronouncement by Mark Dreyfus, Australia’s Attorney General, to not drop charges on Richard Boyle, signals that the government is set on its predecessor’s clamp on whistleblowers.
Richard Boyle faces court later this month for revealing unethical debt collection practices by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) in 2017. Funds were being taken from taxpayer’s accounts without notice. Small businesses were the main target.
Photo from the ABC
This came at a time of rising public scepticism over a perceived far friendlier approach to corporate tax evasion.
Boyle said he had tried to get the matter dealt with internally and went public after facing a brick wall. There was a consequent Four Corners report on the ABC, which brought the details into Australian homes. the whistleblower was charged on 66 counts related to unlawfully recording information. There were later dropped to 24 charges. If found guilty, he could face life imprisonment.
He has denied guilt because of public interest.
The public servant had worked for the ATO for years as a debt collector, and it was in this work that he became aware of what was going on. He claimed staff were instructed to raid bank accounts to pay for assessed debts.
No one has ever been held to account for this, despite a subsequent investigation by the inspector general verifying Boyle’s claims. Although Boyle did get some support in the Senate, the Morrison government remained set on continuing with the prosecution. The Albanese government is now signalling its intention to continue with this.
The best guess as to why, is an intention to send out the message that whistleblowing will not be tolerated. Governments are becoming more afraid about the public knowing of wrongdoing during their watch. Instead of increasing transparency, the shift has been in the opposite direction.
There are other ATO whistlerblowers who will be directly affected by this case.
This is not how it should be. The government can intervene, on the grounds of serving the public interest. Furthermore, it could answer the growing call for whistelblower protection legislation. Failure to do this means that government is acting as a censor, limiting our right to know, and creating a smoke screen to hide corruption and other forms of wrongdoing.