The case for whistle blower protection legislation


The recent case of Joanne Harrison, a lady who has been convicted of taking $725,000 from the Ministry of Transport and has gone to jail for significant fraudulent activity, had another revelation the other day. It was revealed that a few days after she was told she was under investigation and her access to the building where she worked would be revoked, Ms Harrison tried to enter the building to interfere with documents. Upon failing to get in she asked a contractor to access the building for her.

The employees who blew the whistle on Ms Harrison and her deceit were allegedly not treated well by their employers according to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Mr Peters. Labour M.P. Sue Moroney also questioned the treatment of two people who were thought to have raised red flags, and then found themselves jobless just a couple of months later in a review Ms Harrison had a hand in.

It is true that whistle blower protection legislation already exists in New Zealand. However it is undermined by a grossly inadequate set of protections for anyone who feels the need to report serious wrong doing. It is totally unenforced to the point that very few people – if anyone at all – have actually felt safe enough to come forward under the legislation and report serious wrong doing in their place of employment. And it is also under resourced in terms of help that can be offered those considering reporting serious wrong doing.

Insider activity can devastate companies. Of that there should be no doubt. But what happens when the people who see the most damaging activity are too intimidated to report it? What happens when a culture of fear and/or corruption that makes it too dangerous to report such activity, or the activity is reported by people to their superiors, who then sweep it under the rug?

Despite corporates having practices in place with the intention of making the process safe and easy for such complaints to be reported, there is still the risk that someone in a position of authority, perhaps with undeclared interests to hide, will clamp down on a whistle blower. They will attempt to shut them down through bribes, intimidation and harassment – it can be called bullying, but if the attempts at shutting a complainant succeed it is also an attempt to pervert the natural course of justice.

A whistle blower might continue working at the place where the activity is happening. Why should they leave or be made to fear coming to work each day, fear doing their job, because someone in a position of authority is corrupted?

New Zealand does not necessarily need a General Auditing Office like the United States, but it does need an agency where qualified people with impeccable ethics, acting in a neutral manner are able to receive a complaint, disseminate it and determine whether the company, person or people in question have a case to answer. It needs to be networked with other agencies, such as the Serious Fraud Office, the Police, and others who can investigate and if necessary, bring about a criminal prosecution.

Because whistle blowers are not going to be potentially at risk when they blow the whistle, there needs to be protections in place. In the same way the police protect witnesses to violent crimes or gang violence from intimidation and harassment, there needs to be appropriate protection for whistle blowers from the moment they report the offences through to them either being dismissed or the perpetrators found guilty and sentenced. Even then they might not be safe if in the course of prosecuting, associates of the accused or others scared that their own misconduct might be exposed, decide to track down the whistle blower.

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