Standing at the abyss

This article is published by Rosie Williams under the CC by 4.0 licence.

What would it take to turn you into a whistleblower? What would you risk and why? Most of us never have to ask ourselves that question. Here is one story of someone who did. Today I am going to share my own story.

The Little Bird Network is a blog by and for whistleblowers (and supporters). Whistleblowers can’t always attract the attention of the media and in fact sometimes the media is unwilling to touch a story for one reason or another. Evan Donaldson, who just walked away from a million dollar settlement from Defence was left fighting his battle alone for six years.

It took six years before the media picked up on my story and that was only because of the involvement of two cross bench senators.

Sometimes, a story is just not suitable for media because the documentation is not available or there is no clear role for the media to play. So it is with my own story. As editor of a site devoted to whistleblowers I thought I would start with my own story as both a demonstration of the necessity of whistleblowers running their own publication and to give a bit of background on where I am coming from in all this.

A little while ago I was made aware of some financial wrongdoing by very wealthy individuals. It was a very difficult choice to make to decide whether to disclose the information that had been passed to me or to let it go. There I was, living in someone’s laundry like the family pet because I could not access better accommodation. Having raised my special needs child single-handedly to become a professional and then being cut out of the job market because of that very act put into sharp relief the political jibes about ‘leaners’ like me.

I would be putting myself in a potentially dangerous situation if I made disclosures but what was a life like mine worth at this point? I had raised my child and found myself as poor and alone at forty-something as I did as a homeless teenager. I had to decide if putting myself in danger was worth taking a stand against the people who cheat society out of the funds required to make life a bit fairer for the other 99%.

Many of us criticise the government for not cracking down on such individuals or corporations so it was an interesting to realise that if the government was going to be in a position to do that then it might require the assistance of the public. My disclosures were made anonymously and I never spoke of it, following a strategy that my best bet for safety was if no one knew of it.

Recently I noticed my movements being tracked so decided it was time to change strategy. While I would not want to put any investigation at risk by disclosing details, at the same time, I no longer think that remaining silent is my best protection. The behaviours I noticed coincided with my whistleblower projects and I was able to use this network to get some support. I no longer feel so entirely alone with my problems.

In a case like mine there probably isn’t a great deal that can be done as it is not the typical situation where I was making a disclosure against my own employer. Unlike the common scenario where people just doing their jobs find themselves victimised for that alone, I at least understood the risk I was taking.

I have not had to deal with legal issues, smear campaigns etc and yet the fact that I had already been cut out of participation in society and suffer the kind of discrimination and disadvantage that befalls many whistleblowers – and had done for most of my life as a single mother – is actually what motivated me to take the action that I did. We are not often given the chance to spit in the eye of those who sneer at our misfortune so while aware of the risk, I decided that if fear was the only reason I would not do this then I would not bow to that.

According to research, whistleblowers detect and expose “more wrongdoing in the corporate world than every investigator and auditor working for every law enforcement regulator agency combined (The Whistleblower Handbook 2011)”. The scandals revealed by whistleblowers also create policy window events leading to change that otherwise would not occur.

As individuals we all have to make decisions based on our unique circumstances. I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer when it comes to blowing the whistle – it’s a highly personal decision. I do think whistleblowers can do with a bigger support system in Australia, one that brings together people with the technical knowledge to help us increase our safety and deal with the stresses and strains that arise from the risks we take. I hope those with legal and technical expertise will join me in that effort.

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