By | 31 Oct 2023

Moral distress and the debt of whistleblowing

The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) recently launched the Whistleblower Project, and Humanists Victoria aims to support this initiative as much as possible. We owe a great debt to the courageous people who speak up when they become aware of a situation that has crossed an ethical line, despite knowing the personal toll. Their jobs are on the line, the psychological burden is huge, relationships suffer and the financial cost may mean bankruptcy.

In the 1990s Shay a psychiatrist working with veterans from the Vietnam war who had been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), realised that guilt, shame and a feeling of hopelessness frequently accompanied the intrusive memories of traumatic events. He called this moral injury. The betrayal of accepted ethical norms, and failure of those with authority to act appropriately occur in many situations where the stakes are high. Apart from war-time, many within the health profession can be affected. For whistleblowers the ethical predicament is always compelling. They feel morally compromised when their reports of unfair or unjust practices go unheeded. But they feel conscience-bound to speak up in defence of those whose suffering they are unable to fix.

Andrew Wilkie who was a senior analyst in the Office of National Assessments realised in 2003 that intelligence information was being misrepresented by the government in order to justify Australia joining the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 attack. He says ‘like most whistleblowers I was hesitant to speak out. But ultimately, I had no choice.’ He lost his job, his marriage ended and he had very little income for several years. He now uses his position as a Member of Parliament to advocate for whistleblowers and to help them expose wrongdoing by using Parliamentary privilege.

Although Australia has had legislation at Federal, State and Territory levels to protect whistleblowers for the past thirty years, it is clearly not working. It is difficult to access and seldom successful. The two main Commonwealth laws are the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 for public sector cases and the Corporations Act 2001 for dealing with private sector matters. HRLC is advocating for reform of this legislation as well as that in other jurisdictions. What is also needed is a dedicated regulatory body in each State to oversee investigations, manage dispute resolution and take action if whistleblowing legislation is breached. Such a body was proposed thirty years ago and was last raised for consideration when legislation for the National Anti-Corruption Commission was drafted. But so far this means of support has also failed to materialise.

In the current climate whistleblowers frequently have to rely on others to tell their story, and investigative journalists are important in this regard. They also take risks, but believe in the public’s right to know. The stories they write have sometimes led to Royal Commissions. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights address the obligation to provide whistleblower protection. Whistleblowers have an important role to play in fighting corruption and ensuring that governments respect human rights and provide a transparent and accountable democracy. They should be protected, not persecuted.

For some, the costs attached to speaking out are too high, for others they know that they can’t live with themselves if they stay silent. The burden is seldom lifted, even so. We are indebted to them for their courage. While HRLC is working to provide pro bono legal support and a protective environment there are also ways in which each of us can advocate. Contact us if you would like further information.

31 October 2023 

Jennie Stuart