Gerd Schröder-Turk was on a long-haul flight to Luxembourg in 2019 when he broke down while watching the film Pretty Woman.
The 1990 classic is hardly a tearjerker, and Schröder-Turk, a professor of maths and statistics at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, is hardly one to be emotional. But the events of recent months had come at an enormous cost to his mental state. He had just received news that he was being sued for more money than his entire life's earnings. Schröder-Turk and his young family were now staring down the barrel of financial ruin.
“I found it very hard to accept that someone who knew me would be willing to take an action that they knew would threaten my livelihood,” the academic told VICE World News.
As the gravity of his situation sank in at 42,000 feet, Schröder-Turk was confronted with the unsettling truth that this “intimidatory and existential personal attack” was revenge for speaking out in defense of the students he cared so deeply for.
In May 2019, just a few months earlier, he appeared on ABC’s Four Corners to blow the whistle on Murdoch University waiving standard English language proficiency requirements in order to allow more high-paying international students to study at the institution.
Treated as cash cows, these students were failing in higher than usual numbers, with the university showing little regard for their welfare. Schröder-Turk, a father of two children, was confronted with students disclosing self-harm and extreme financial hardship to him.
After he fronted the national current affairs program, he was swiftly removed from his teaching duties. Months later, the university—which the same year turned over $406.9 million revenue—lodged the multimillion dollar lawsuit against the academic-turned-whistleblower. While Murdoch University would eventually crumble under public pressure to drop the lawsuit, admitting defeat in June 2020 and promising an independent governance review at the university, the psychological damage Schröder-Turk endured could not be withdrawn.
Schröder-Turk’s case speaks to the hostile climate endured by whistleblowers in Australia more generally. Despite being one of the world’s leading liberal democracies, whistleblowing—the act of exposing immoral or illegal acts by government, private or public corporations—remains a high-risk action to take in the country. While the United States and European Union have expanded protections to empower and even reward whistleblowers, Australian laws still favour secrecy and silence, with those working in government-run institutions enjoying the least protection of all.
This has resulted in a system that discourages whistleblowers from speaking publicly and fails to defend them when they do. And while reform may be on the federal agenda for 2022, local whistleblowers, and the groups that represent them, aren’t convinced the new protections go far enough.
“Despite Australia’s whistleblowing laws, we know that four in five people who speak up experience some form of retaliation,” Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at Human Rights Law Centre told VICE World News.
“Whistleblowers make Australia a better place. They should be protected, not punished. But right now, too many whistleblowers are suffering.”
While whistleblower protections are broadly lacking in Australia, the pace of reform differs between the private and public sector, with government institutions offering an especially hostile environment for those who dare to expose wrongdoing.
In 2016, former Integrity Commissioner Phillip Moss concluded public sector laws were ‘failing’ Australian whistleblowers. His Review of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 made 33 recommendations, including simpler legislative processes, more investigative agencies to provide additional avenues for disclosures, and a review of the Act every three to five years.
Five years later, the government finally announced plans to act on Moss’s recommendations and improve whistleblower protections in order to repair “trust and accountability in the public sector.” The public sector reforms, which won’t come into play until after the May 2022 election, are set to come further in line with the sturdier protections already afforded to those in the private sector. Since 2020, whistleblowers who air corporate dirty laundry have immunity from being fired, sued and discriminated against. Australian companies must also have a whistleblower policy in place or be hit with a $126,000 fine.
“The law's failure to protect whistleblowers who go to the media is a clear indication that the law is oriented to domesticating dissent rather than empowering the whistleblower…”
Yet even if the government is making moves towards bringing the public sector in line with the private, Whistleblowers Australia, a non profit organisation supporting would-be and current whistleblowers, warns that current internal protections for private sector disclosures are “inadequate” and “largely imaginary.”
Their concern is that the system aims to keep public interest disclosures in-house, discouraging whistleblowers from speaking to the media and external regulators such as the ombudsman and parliamentary committees.
To be protected, the whistleblower must first file a complaint to company management or human resources, an internal regulator or one of two external regulators. Whistleblowers must also wait 90 days before they go public with their grievance and advise the original regulator about their intention to contact a Member of Parliament or the media.
These restrictions inhibit the ability of people in the private sector to turn to the media, which remains one of the great allies of whistleblowers—aiding in dialling up the pressure on politicians, spreading awareness and shining a light on unchecked problems.
“The law's failure to protect whistleblowers who go to the media is a clear indication that the law is oriented to domesticating dissent rather than empowering the whistleblower or putting priority on action against wrongdoers,” writes Brian Martin, an emeritus professor of social sciences and Vice President of Whistleblowers Australia, in Illusions of Whistleblower Protection.
A media presence also fuels public support, which bestows whistleblowers with a psychological and financial crutch to withstand a David vs Goliath-style battle.
“When you blow the whistle, you’re up against well-resourced and powerful institutions who will try to downplay and dispute everything you say and that will try to discredit your motivations and credibility,” said Schröder-Turk.
Schröder-Turk, whose case was covered widely by national media, believes he “came out good because of the public support,” crediting the 30,000 plus people who signed a Change.org petition and the #IStandWithGerd campaign organised by the National Tertiary Education Union.
“It felt like my case had changed from a case between me and Murdoch University to a case of Murdoch University vs the rest of the world,” he said.
In the public sector, exposing state secrets with the help of the media remains even more fraught for all involved. In June 2019, federal police conducted two high-profile raids on journalists for “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret.”
The home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst was raided for a story she had published a year prior in which she revealed top secret emails, leaked to her by a whistleblower, between government departments discussing plans for increased surveillance of Australian citizens.
Soon after, ABC’s Sydney headquarters were raided for publishing secret defense documents exposing disturbing allegations of misconduct by the Australian armed forces in Afghanistan.
VICE World News reached out to the office of assistant minister to the attorney-general Amanda Stoker, who has previously reaffirmed the Australian government’s commitment to enhancing whistleblower protections, but received no response at the time of publishing.
Police raids, however, are just some of the more public and severe repercussions endured. For those exposing lower profile wrongdoing in Australia, the consequences are often far less explicit.
Despite the legal protections, approximately 85% of whistleblowers suffer psychologically and socially due to ostracisation tactics used by individuals and institutions accused of wrongdoing—a slow-burning form of social retaliation that is hard to clamp down on.
This was also the experience of Dr Michael Cole, a now-retired neonatal consultant doctor who “blew the whistle” on what he regarded as a dysfunctional—even dangerous—leadership at the Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia.
Cole told VICE World News that in 2008, a director in the neonatal unit he worked in waited eight hours to receive whole blood before performing an emergency exchange transfusion on a newborn child. The newborn suffered severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, seizures, deafness and blindness—a tragic outcome which was preventable through an earlier exchange and the use of packed cells, he says.
Cole sounded the alarm, time and time again, about what he says were the doctor’s lack of clinical skill and incompetent leadership, taking place behind closed doors at the state’s largest neonatal intensive care unit. In retaliation for speaking out, Cole says he was subject to years of disciplinary investigations and psychiatric evaluations.
In the disciplinary investigations, he says his professional integrity was condemned by management as “open criticism of colleagues” and “intolerable behaviour.” An independent review, which Cole accuses Westmead of having coerced, suggested he may have possible borderline personality disorder. Later, when applying for worker’s compensation, Cole was evaluated by two other psychiatrists—neither of whom suggested he had a psychiatric disorder.
Cole believes this whole ordeal was intended to break him psychologically. He endured five years of retaliation from Westmead before leaving his job due to stress.
“Colleagues would make fantasy, false statements about me,” remembered Cole. “It caused a huge amount of anxiety. I was put on anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants.”
It has been nearly ten years since Cole left Westmead. He assesses that the higher heart and breathing rate he is experiencing when revisiting the details of his case for the interview is “a sort of PTSD response.”
While Cole’s experience came prior to Australia’s overhaul of whistleblower laws, he is skeptical of the current private sector and incoming public sector protections that encourage whistleblowers to rely on internal channels. After all, he says, human resource departments can never truly investigate disclosures without fear or favour.
“They look like they should, but they don’t and they can’t,” Cole warned future whistleblowers. “HR is not your friend.”
VICE World News reached out to Westmead Hospital’s press office for a response to Cole’s accusations, but they did not respond at the time of publishing.
Ostracisation like this is the most common retaliation for speaking out, fuelled by social norms that show disdain for “dobbers,” a culture of mateship and a dangerous framing of whistleblowers as inherent traitors.
Ostracisation occurs when “co-workers turn away rather than saying hello, when they sit at another table during tea breaks and lunch, when they stop dropping by to have a chat, and when they make excuses to leave whenever you approach them,” Whistleblowers Australia’s Martin writes in Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide.
Advocates have sought to trigger a change in these destructive social norms. A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology, for instance, recommended an annual citation or award where whistleblowers are recognised and thanked, to encourage positive public perceptions of whistleblowers. The Australian Labor Party has proposed a rewards-based “bounty system,” similar to that used in the United States, to offer financial rewards for those who speak out.
“Good laws on paper are just the start,” said Pender. “We need a cultural change in the way we treat people who are doing the right thing by calling out wrongdoing.”
But in Australia’s current climate, both Cole and Schröder-Turk’s experiences remain cautionary tales for those who want to speak out publicly. They both want people to know what is at stake and just how risky whistleblowing remains.
“Most people just think they are doing the right thing and behaving like a good citizen or employee and before they know it, they are drowning in quicksand,” said Cole, adding that he understands why people stay silent if they have a mortgage, a career and a family to protect.
As for Schröder-Turk, with the gift of hindsight, he counts himself as a “lucky whistleblower.” Today, he still teaches at the university, sits as a member of the Academic Council of Murdoch University and is widely respected for his contribution to academic and ethical integrity. But still he grapples with his new identity as a whistleblower.
“The whistleblowing becomes a ‘tag’ that will stick with you, and one that you will find difficult to ‘let go’,” he said. “It continues to occupy you when the world has forgotten.”
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This story incorrectly stated that Dr Michael Cole blew the whistle on incompetent leadership at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, instead of Westmead Hospital. We regret the error.