Rocio Paradela, Graduate Associate
The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018 (Cth) passed both Houses of Parliament on 19 February 2019, and is now awaiting Royal Assent. This legislation aims to consolidate and broaden whistleblower protections for the corporate and financial sectors, and to introduce a whistleblower protection regime with respect to breaches of tax laws.
The events surrounding the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry has put the spotlight on misconduct in these sectors, and on the role that whistleblowers may play in bringing such conduct to light.
The regime is relatively complex as it sets up a number of qualifying requirements for disclosures to be protected under the legislation.
Who is an eligible whistleblower?
Individuals who qualify for protection include current and former employees, officers and directors, contractors, suppliers, unpaid workers, family members of employees, and certain designated individuals in relation to superannuation entities.
What disclosures are protected?
Disclosures of information may qualify for protection where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the information concerns misconduct, an improper state of affairs, conduct that could constitute an offence, or other prescribed circumstances. In addition, to qualify for protection disclosures need to be made to a relevant authority, a legal practitioner or an appropriate person (referred to as an “eligible recipient”). In the case of a corporate entity, this includes an officer or senior manager, or a person authorised to receive disclosures.
However, there is provision for certain public interest and emergency disclosures, and personal work-related grievances are on the whole excluded from the protections.
How will an eligible whistleblower be protected?
The legislation provides a number of levels of protections for whistleblowers. These include in relation to the confidentiality of whistleblowers’ identity, prohibitions on victimisation and detrimental treatment, immunity from liability in certain circumstances, and the capacity to apply for compensation.
The policy imperative
One area for employers to note in particular is that as a consequence of this legislation, certain entities (such as public companies, large proprietary companies and proprietary companies that are the trustee of a registrable superannuation entity) will be required to have a whistleblower policy in place. Failure to comply with this requirement is designated as a strict liability offence.
A policy must contain information about:
- the protections available to whistleblowers, including the protections available under the legislation;
- how and to whom an individual can make a protected disclosure;
- how the company will support whistleblowers and protect them from detriment;
- how the company will investigate disclosures that qualify for protection under the legislation;
- how the company will ensure fair treatment of employees who are mentioned in whistleblower disclosures;
- how the policy will be made available; and
- any other prescribed matter.
Many of the provisions are designed to commence some months after Royal Assent is received. This gives organisations a window of time to examine their practices and to get an appropriate policy framework in place. Employers are also encouraged to consider appropriate training to deal with the new legislation, particularly for staff that are likely to be the designed recipients of disclosures within their organisation.
If you require any advice as to how these legislative changes may affect you or your organisation, please feel free contact People + Culture Strategies on (02) 8094 3100.