Mandatory whistleblower policies won’t be enough to encourage people to bring corporate wrongdoing to light and won’t offer them enough protection, according to Jeff Morris.

The ex-CBA financial planner, who blew the lid on the bank’s efforts to cover up the malfeasance of star planner Don Nguyen over ten years ago, says ASIC is the wrong institution to formulate and enforce policy on whistleblowing.

“They’re one of the groups charged with taking enforcement actions so they’re effectively checking their own homework,” Morris tells Professional Planner.

Morris believes that the government should have set up an independent body to create guidelines for whistleblowers, as well as offer guidance and protection, instead of “foisting” the job on the corporate regulator.

“You need a separate agency looking after them, otherwise ASIC’s in conflicted territory,” he says.

Conflicts aside, Morris has reason to be sceptical of ASIC’s ability to function as a bulwark for whistleblower supervision and protection. In a 2014 interview with Professional Planner Morris explained how he was forced to go public with ASIC’s “incompetent” handling of CBA’s transgressions.

“My experience has convinced me they were actually the biggest problem,” he said of ASIC in 2014. “It took literally years of prodding to get ASIC moving, and even then they bungled it.”

Broken people who tried to do the right thing

On Wednesday, Morris introduced journalist and author Adele Ferguson at the launch of her book, Banking Bad, which centres on the events leading to and during the Hayne Royal Commission. Ferguson originally broke Jeff’s story in 2013, turning it into a national scandal and one of the early catalysts for Hayne royal commission.

During the eight-minute talk, Morris revealed the “immense pressure” felt by those who come forward. He painted a picture of a man who sacrificed everything for a pyrrhic victory; despite being considered a ‘successful’ whistleblower, it almost broke him.

“Despite the supposed reform of whistleblowers, there is no meaningful protection,” Morris said. “What we need in this country is a whistleblower protection agency, we need a compensation scheme to recognise that they will never work again, certainly not in their chosen field.”

Morris described attending the conference of a group called Whistleblowers Australia, which was “full of broken people who had tried to do the right thing”.

“The system basically crushed them. Virtually everyone I spoke to at that conference had lost their family and had been diagnosed with PTSD or some other disorder. I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011,” he revealed.

Morris understands why people don’t want to speak up. It’s actually quite a rational choice, he said. “There’s nothing in it for the whistleblower, nothing material.”

Yet society needs “the other 99 out of 100” to speak up, Morris said. Regulation alone will not hold institutions to account.

Window dressing

Morris’ mention of reform was prescient; less than an hour after his speech concluded ASIC released a consultation paper seeking feedback on new regulation to make companies “implement a whistleblower policy and make it available to their officers and employees by 1 January 2020”.

The reforms focus on the same encouragement, guidance and protection for corporate whistleblowers that Morris is lobbying for. ASIC says they’re aimed at ensuring “those who put their personal and financial lives at risk to report wrongdoing can access their rights and protections,” and that the policies “help uncover wrongdoing that may not otherwise be detected.”

According to Morris, however, it’s a band-aid solution. If the government really wanted reform they would have set up an independent group themselves.

“The fact that they have deliberately chosen not to do so – despite enacting some window dressing in terms of some advised whistleblower laws – says to me is that this government doesn’t want whistleblowers coming forward and embarrassing them… [or] their friends in the corporate sector,” he says.

Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.
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