ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle (Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

Any hopes that the government was quietly backing away from its war on whistleblowers have been dashed after the Commonwealth signalled it would push ahead with the prosecution of Australian Tax Office (ATO) whistleblower Richard Boyle.

Boyle is facing life in prison for his role in exposing unethical debt collection practices inside the ATO. Three external reviews corroborated many of Boyle’s concerns.

The Commonwealth signalled it may walk away from the case in March, but told a hearing on Thursday it would instead push ahead with the charges.

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“This is a deeply disappointing development,” Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender told Crikey.

“From the start, this prosecution has been profoundly wrong and unjust, taken against an Australian who spoke up against wrongdoing in the tax office and has been vindicated with subsequent reform to ATO practices.”

Disclosure laws ‘broken’

Boyle is relying on the Public Interest Disclosure regime in his response to the alleged offences, which have hung over him since he went public with his concerns three years ago.

That regime allows for whistleblowers to speak out to the media if they have tried and failed to raise issues internally, which is what Boyle did when he took his complaints to Fairfax/ABC after he believed the ATO ignored his concerns.

Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) Sarah McNaughton told Senate estimates last month that the government was considering dropping the remaining charges against Boyle. It had already dropped 42 of the 66 charges against him in June after internal reviews revealed the ATO failed to fully investigate Boyle’s concerns.

Since Boyle’s persecution began, three separate reviews of the ATO have backed up his claims about unethical practices and went some way to show the information he disclosed was in the public interest.

This includes reports by the Inspector-General of Taxation and Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman. A Senate investigation into the ATO’s internal investigation of the claims later found it had been superficial.

Crikey put questions to the CDPP about why it decided to push ahead with the case.

The latest development is a blow to the other whistleblowers being prosecuted by the government, including barrister Bernard Collaery and his client, former intelligence officer Witness K.

While Boyle’s case has not involved the same degree of politicisation as Collaery, it again shows how hostile the government is to public servants who speak out, and just how broken Australia’s whistleblower protections are.

“The fact that Richard Boyle can be prosecuted and faces life in prison for his whistleblowing underscores the Public Interest Disclosure Act‘s major failings and the need for urgent reform,” Pender said.

“Boyle did the right thing — he spoke up internally and, only when those channels failed, he went to the ABC. The crushing emotional and financial burden it has placed on Boyle, a brave Australian who spoke up about wrongdoing in the public interest, is deplorable.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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