Friday, February 21, 2020

Strengthening whistleblower protection

The government has announced it will strengthen whistleblower protections. The major change is "allowing people to report serious wrongdoing direct to an external authority if they wish", which fixes one of the big flaws in the Act. At present, whistleblowers must generally make their disclosure direct to the body they are blowing the whistle on - a requirement which disincentives disclosures (because of obvious and justified mistrust) while enabling institutional coverups. If "external authority" means MPs and the media, then that removes that barrier, while setting a strong incentive for organisations to have effective and trustworthy internal processes (because otherwise people will just go to the media instead).

Unfortunately, the rest of the changes are mostly technical. On the other big problem with the Act - the lack of real protection for retaliation - the government proposes "strengthening" protections by making requirements clear. Which simply isn't enough, because it still relies on private enforcement for a breach, and will only impose civil penalties (which will usually be borne by someone else). Australia meanwhile has made retaliation against whistleblowers a criminal offence, which means there is a real incentive not to do it. And as for the decriminalisation of intelligence whistleblowing - shamefully made a criminal offence by National, despite clear evidence of its public value and of unlawful behaviour by spy agencies - that doesn't even get a look in. So, while these are welcome changes, they simply don't go far enough.

(Meanwhile, I guess this will be proudly announced as an Open Government Partnership commitment in our next action plan, despite being a business-as-usual policy which has been in the works for years. It is neither ambitious nor additional. But that's the typical scale of New Zealand's OGP "commitments")