Improving protections for whistleblowers should be the one of the first steps taken by government to ensure reasonable standards of aged care in Australia, according to Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC), The Hon. Bruce Lander QC.
Speaking to Informa ahead of the Aged Care Reform Conference, Mr. Lander said that sheltering whistleblowers from acts of reprisal – such as sacking, or retaliatory legal action – was perhaps the single best way to mitigate toxic cultures of secrecy within substandard care facilities, and improve the transparency of the industry.
Mr. Lander, who conducted the highly-publicised review of scandal-ridden Oakden Nursing Home in South Australia, said that poor complaint handling and internal secrecy are significant enablers in the perpetuation of elderly abuse.
“In the case of Oakden, it was, in my view, the organisation’s inability to take appropriate action when concerns were raised that allowed poor workplace practices to continue for as long as they did. Had the staff who exposed the alleged misconduct been adequately responded to from the outset, the tragic circumstances that ensued may not have occurred.”
In Australia, exposing internal acts of wrongdoing, it would seem, is only an act for the brave. Famous whistleblower, Richard Boyle, who outed the alleged misconduct of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) earlier this year, faced significant backlash when he was subsequently accused of 66 offences – including phone tapping without consent – exposing him to the risk of a combined jail sentence of 161 years. Boyle said that his physical and mental health had suffered as a result of these repercussions and that his life had taken a turn for the worse since speaking out.
Renowned whistleblowing expert, Professor A.J. Brown, who led the Whistling While They Work research series, said, “We know organisations are waking up to the need to have good internal whistleblowing protections. But they may not yet realise the level of action required to make people feel adequately encouraged and supported to speak up, and to meet new corporate obligations.”
In 2014, Mr. Lander made a report to Parliament regarding public interest disclosures, declaring the need for better protections for public officers who report internal misconduct, including the right to maintain anonymity, and omission from civil or criminal prosecution. These recommendations were actioned in July this year, but do not presently cover aged care facilities, unless government-owned.
In addition to better whistleblower protections, Mr. Lander also said that education of staff should be a key priority in improving industry standards. This, he argues, would serve a dual function: ensuring that staff were better equipped to provide high quality care in complex medical cases, such as dementia, but also, elevating the status of the profession to attract a high caliber of talent and expertise into the industry and ensure that the responsibilities of the role are taken more seriously. “Such a level of education would no doubt be costly, but I believe it to be entirely necessary in bringing the industry to where it needs to be,” he said.
The Hon Bruce Lander QC is to present at the Aged Care Reform Conference, taking place 14 November 2019 in Melbourne, where he will reflect on the Oakden report, share his views on the latest Royal Commission proceedings and outline what still needs to be done to improve the sector.