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In the ‘Public Interest’: Whistleblowers and Institutional Betrayal

by Naomi Halpern, Director, Delphi Training and Consulting

Updated: 14 March 2024.

On 12 March, the Boeing whistleblower, John Barnett, died by suicide: Boeing whistleblower John Barnett found dead in US

His attorneys said, “He was in very good spirits and really looking forward to putting this phase of his life behind him and moving on. We didn’t see any indication he would take his own life. No one can believe it“. This tragic news reinforces the urgency for Australia to protect our whistleblowers. It highlights we cannot make assumptions about someone’s mental health on their presentation or appearance alone. Some people are well able to mask their distress. Supports for whistleblowers throughout the process, and post investigations and legal proceedings is crucial. 

Sentencing in the prosecution of Afghanistan military whistleblower, Major David William McBride was scheduled for 12 March 2024. On 6 March, the ACT Supreme Court announced an adjournment. The reason for the adjournment is due to prosecutors presenting new ‘national security’ evidence. In a press release announcing this unexpected development, McBride said, “I did not plead guilty to that and never will. I want to be before a judge now and away from these petty games”.

McBride exposed war crimes in Afghanistan through leaked classified military documents that became known as the ‘Afghan Files’.  Subsequently the Brereton Report (2020) found credible information that members of the Australian Special Forces had committed war crimes during their operations in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

McBride planned to use the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PID) in his defence. In November last year, an ACT supreme court upheld a commonwealth intervention to withhold key evidence it deemed as having the potential to jeopardise the security and defence of Australia if released.  This gave McBride no option but to plead guilty.

Investigative journalist, Chris Masters, who wrote the book about Ben Roberts Smith, Flawed Hero: Truth, Lies, and War Crimes (2023), says about McBride that “when he leaked the classified documents, he was not blowing the whistle on war crimes. On the contrary, he was arguing that soldiers were being unfairly persecuted for doing their jobs, only later reinventing himself as a whistleblower on war crimes”(The Age Good WeekendJane Cazdow March 2, 2024.

Prof. Peter Greste says, My view is that whistleblowers’ motivations are secondary to the evidence that they’re revealing….What David revealed was indisputably in the public interestHe was just too close to it to see the real issue” (The Age Good WeekendJane Cazdow March 2, 2024.

McBride says, “what often happens with whistleblowers is they are “controversialised” as much as possible”.  (ABC News, Adele Ferguson, March 4, 2024).

We see “controversialising” in areas other than whistleblowing. Think about the attacks on the credibility of Brittany Higgins, the photo circulated of former Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, smoking a bong, or how commonly female victims of domestic violence, in particular First Nations women, who present to police are described as “hysterical” or under the influence of substances and are subsequently arrested as the primary aggressor when they were defending themselves. It is as if we, the public, demand that victims or alleged victims, be held to a level of virtuousness that is unrealistic and may perhaps at times be greater than our own.


Image supplied: Naomi Halpern. Why are whistleblowers still facing jail time?  Event held by Whistleblower Justice Fund, 5 March 2024, Melbourne

It is clear that we cannot trust that those in power will always act in our best interest. Another high-profile whistleblower, Richard Boyle, blew the whistle on the Australian Tax Office (ATO) aggressive tactics in pursuing debt from taxpayers. He told the court he feared some people were at risk of taking their lives because of the stress of being aggressively pursued for debts. He claimed the ATO pressured staff to be heavy-handed when collecting debts from taxpayers, including people who were ill or being abused. He gave the example of a woman fleeing domestic violence, even though she hoped to pay her tax debt after selling her house, (Tory Shepherd and Christopher Knaus, The Guardian, 27 March 2023). As with the investigation that followed McBride’s allegations, a subsequent investigation into Boyle’s claims found the use of garnishee notices was “excessive”. In March 2023, Boyle also lost his bid to use protection under the PID Act. He launched an appeal against this ruling in August 2023.

The Public Interest Act is vital, however, in the words of Kieran Pender, Human Rights Law Centre, “The court’s decision that Boyle’s whistleblowing on wrongdoing within the ATO was not covered by the PID Act shows that the law is utterly broken.” (Tory Shepherd and Christopher Knaus, The Guardian, 27 March 2023). This is a view held by the many advocates in both McBride’s and Boyle’s corner, including the Greens party, Andrew Wilkie MP, and ex-Senator Rex Patrick. Both McBride and Boyle face the prospect of life imprisonment for blowing the whistle. There is something very awry with the law when whistleblowers face life imprisonment and wrongdoers walk free.

I leave it to others to speak to the limitations of current law and the complexities of changes that need to occur. It is clear however, that the PID Act as it currently stands does not serve the public or whistleblowers acting in the public interest. Australia needs an independent Whistleblower Protection Authority, as proposed by the Human Rights Law Centre and Transparency International Australia. It needs to be established now, not another can to be kicked down the road by successive governments. Further, as occurs in the USA, whistleblowers need to be rewarded not prosecuted and face life imprisonment.


I turn now to the psycho-social impacts on whistleblowers and the mostly faceless victims sitting behind the exposure of wrongdoing by whistleblowers, evidenced by gruelling witness statements at the inquiries into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Deaths in Custody, the Robodebt Scheme and Aged Care Quality and Safety, to name a few – harrowing examples of institutional abuse and betrayal.

Jeff Morris, the CBA whistleblower and a key driving force behind the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, McBride, Boyle and Alysha Rose, the Ashley Youth Detention Centre whistleblower, who exposed decades of abuse of youth in its care, have spoken candidly about the impact of blowing the whistle on their finances, careers, family, relationships and mental wellbeing. As Morris says, “People cheer whistleblowers but they don’t employ them”.  (ABC News, Adele Ferguson, March 4, 2024). The tragic news of the death by suicide of John Barnett brings the mental health risks to whistleblowers to the fore.

The innocuous term in the public interest, does not scrape the surface of the personal devastation and lifelong impacts on whistleblowers and the people they try to protect. In this context I turn to the term, special relationship’, used to describe the relationship between Australia and its two key allies, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In a recent event held by the Whistleblower Justice Fund, Greens MP, Adam Bandt, raised how this special relationship could and should be used as leverage in bringing home another high-profile Australian Whistleblower, Julian Assange. Special relationship implies mutuality and equality, of which many political commentators are derisive when speaking about the AUKUS trilateral security partnership. I’m not going down that path. I use the analogy to describe the lived experience of ‘special relationship’, on the victim-survivors of interpersonal and institutional abuse and betrayal.

Child survivors of sexual abuse will likely feel distressed when they hear or read the term special relationship in the media. Children abused within the family home, school, church and other community groups, are groomed by paedophiles who abuse the power imbalance to foster the sense of a ‘special relationship’. There is no mutuality or equality. Consent is not applicable because of the age and power differential. This is true of victims of banks, financial advisors, the Australian Tax Office and Robodebt scandal, where people trusted professionals and authorities, whom they should have been able to trust, and /or had little understanding or choice in their situations. In both child and adult examples, victim blaming and shaming is key in silencing victims and thereby facilitating ongoing perpetration of crimes and abuse of power. Many experience the term coined by Emerit Prof. Jennifer Freyd, DARVO (deny – attack – reverse victim and offender) whereby victims are held responsible and accountable for crimes committed against them. Every day in consulting rooms, clinics and hospitals, mental health professionals see the impacts of these abuses; PTSD, dissociative disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, suicide attempts and completed suicides. Some child victims will eventually find themselves in the adult criminal justice system. Others may grow up to be victims of bullying, harassment, discrimination, family violence, sexual assault, rape, and tragically murder.

This is the intersection where institutional betrayal and the fate of whistleblowers meets the victims they bring to the public eye. As a society we need to care about what happens to our whistleblowers, for the suffering that the failure of our current ‘protections’ visit upon them and the thousands of people they aim to protect, in the public interest.

To learn more about an upcoming training on Institutional Betrayal and Institutional Courage with Emerit Prof. Jennifer Freyd CLICK HERE

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