(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

In the small, closeted world of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Canberra headquarters, almost everyone knows the identity of Whistleblower #1.

He was the one who was marched out of the commission’s head office in November last year, never to return, his career up in flames. It was four days after internal emails potentially embarrassing to the ACCC had been published in a 60 Minutes investigation into Australia’s Takata air bag safety recall.

“It was the brutality of it, the suddenness of it,“ recalls Whistleblower #1. “It seems to have been done deliberately to humiliate me as a warning to others about what happens to whistleblowers. It was effective because there was shock and horror on people’s faces, as there would be.”

Whistleblower #1’s identity is barely known in the wider world and he would like to keep it that way, for the time being at least, as he attempts to bring some normality back into his life, having just started a new job and moved cities. Yet WB1 (as we will call him) remains driven to draw the spotlight onto what he believes are serious failings in Australia’s most powerful consumer safety body. It is why, after enduring a year which might have broken others, WB1 wants to get his message out.

“What more can they do to me?” he asks. “They’ve already got rid of me. They can’t do it twice.”

The end for WB1 finally came after a torturously slow 12 month investigation which concluded he had likely passed on an internal email, a breach of the Australian Public Service code of conduct. Although WB1 remained on full pay throughout the investigation, money was the least of his problems.

Whistleblowing, he says, is “not for the faint hearted”. “You need a strong motivation obviously. In my particular case I felt it was an absolute last resort and that really I had no option and I was feeling that lives were going to be lost — they already had been — and I felt it was in the public interest for those victims, the families of those victims whose lives had been lost.”

While employers look for ways to imbue their staff with a sense of purpose, WB1 arrived at the ACCC brimming with it. Formerly a school teacher, he had made a career shift to consumer safety, first in private enterprise and then for the commission, which had the remit to use its strong powers via the Australian Consumer Law to protect consumers from dangerous products.

He knew what he wanted to achieve professionally and working at the ACCC was it. At the time WB1 was recruited almost 10 years ago, he says, the ACCC appeared to be looking for people like him with retail experience who genuinely cared about consumer safety.

“At that time we were told to use the law in innovative ways and we succeeded in doing that in quite remarkable ways,” he tells Inq. “I sprang out of bed in the morning, I don’t mind saying, and really looked forward to doing that sort of work.”

But WB1 found that his mission of protecting the consumer from injury or death became harder and harder to achieve. ACCC figures show that after the Coalition came to power there was a steep fall in the number of recalls of dangerous products where the ACCC took the lead. In 2013/14 the ACCC led the negotiation of 91 recalls. That plummeted to 21 the following year. Whether it was a direction from the government to use a lighter touch on industry regulation, or whether this was due to a change in the ACCC’s management, as WB1 believes, there was a fundamental cultural shift.

At the same time, he says, internal discussion was progressively shut down. “It actually became quite risky at that point to raise issues. People started to clam up. And I think this is actually what created the environment that was ripe for whistleblowing,” he reflects.

WB1 went from feeling frustrated to feeling alarmed. “By the time you’ve reached this turning point I had a feeling of dread that more lives were going to be very adversely affected.”

WB1 was not alone. Inq is aware of two others who grew so concerned about the changing culture that they took the route of making a Public Interest Disclosure — a way of blowing the whistle internally and having allegations investigated by an independent investigator. One of these public servants (let’s call him WB2) — cited the ACCC’s handling of the Takata airbag safety recall as an example of a flawed process. He did this half a year before two separate Takata incidents in 2017 that severely injured a young woman in Darwin and killed Sydney man Huy Neng Ngo.

WB2 says there was plenty of talk at executive level about the Takata airbag, but it appeared to him that officials were trying to find reasons not to get involved. “The culture had become one of if we don’t look for a problem, then we don’t have to deal with the consequences,” he tells Inq.

WB1 saw little or no change at the ACCC after his colleagues decided to blow the whistle the government-sanctioned way.  He speaks about one product, decorative ethanol burners, which left several children disfigured by burns before the ACCC acted. “I’ve seen some horrific injuries, horrible burn injuries that young children had suffered, like 55% burns to their bodies, this sort of thing and yet another systemic problem with a consumer good that wasn’t being addressed. State and territory offices of Fair Trading were repeatedly raising this issue about dangerous ethanol burners and nothing would be done.”

He says his sense of “dread” only increased when he saw that the Takata airbag had taken someone’s life after his colleague had warned of the risk to the public of how the ACCC was performing.

“That’s really what prompted me to take the ultimate step, to take that information to somebody who could effect change.”

Did he think carefully before taking his information public?

“Yes. Long and hard, and I spent many sleepless nights thinking about this, as I had about consumers, you know kids and other vulnerable consumers that had innocently and needlessly been injured in the most horrific ways imaginable. And I think at that point I felt that if I didn’t do my bit, as it were, to ensure that more lives weren’t lost I would be failing myself and other people. Actually it really came to that point where I didn’t feel that I had a choice.”

After the 60 Minutes segment aired, the hunt for the whistleblower began in earnest. WB1 was probably already on the list, having previously sided with WB2. You could say the “X” was already on his back before the evidence was gathered which would justify him being fingered for the leak and marched out of the building.

WB1 found himself immediately isolated from colleagues — his tribe — after his workmates were told not to speak to him. The isolation hurt and demoralised him. Then came the smears. “They have shown they have absolutely no qualms about telling lies about me, demonstrable lies, documented lies that are easily proven false,” he says.

But the toughest stage came when the ACCC threatened to charge him under the Crimes Act, a development he didn’t anticipate and which might have meant time in prison.

WB1 says the case of Richard Boyle, the Tax Office whistleblower who faces a potential 161 years in prison after being charged under the Crimes Act, came to mind “a few times”.

“I can completely relate to Richard Boyle when he says it felt like they wanted me dead. I felt that sometimes.”

He also watched with alarm as the federal police raided the ABC and the home of a News Corp journalist, along with the homes and offices of public servants.

“You’re never going to face any more formidable opponent in life than the government. They have incredible legal powers and unlimited funding, for pursuing you, for persecuting you. And they basically make the rules. They can make you feel absolutely isolated and powerless. And you realise those truths you took to be sacred in some way mean nothing actually. That’s when those thoughts override your rational mind.”

WB1 now hopes a NSW Coroner’s inquest into the 2017 death of Huy Neng Ngo will reveal the truth of how the Takata safety recall was handled and vindicate WB1’s actions as a whistleblower “so that the truth will ultimately come out for the victims.”

That, he says, is “why I did it.”

Tomorrow: “Sometimes you just have to be able to live with yourself…”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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