Reflections on being President of Whistleblowers Australia Inc.

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), September 1999, pp. 6-8

 

Brian Martin


Go to

Brian Martin's publications on suppression of dissent

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website


I’ve decided not to stand again for president at the upcoming annual general meeting in Brisbane on 28 November. Therefore it seems a good time to reflect on the role of the president and national committee of Whistleblowers Australia.

According to WBA’s constitution, the only required duties of the president are to chair general meetings of the association and of the national committee. That isn’t too hard, especially considering that there are two vice-presidents to handle the task in case the president isn’t available.

Therefore, most of what the president does is at his or her own initiative. In my view, the most important challenge is to promote the health of the organisation nationwide. WBA has a federal structure, with state branches, local groups and contacts, as well as the national committee.

I think the most important things that WBA does are holding meetings where whistleblowers can meet, providing information directly to individuals (over the phone or by post, email or the web) and campaigning on particular issues such as whistleblower legislation. The bulk of this activity occurs at the state, local or individual level. If there is a group or contact person, then information and support can be provided. What then is the role for a national committee? I see several important functions:

The New South Wales branch is by far the largest and most active in the country. It has weekly meetings with substantial attendance, something unusual for any voluntary organisation. It has initiated effective campaigns, such as the exposure of HealthQuest for certifying whistleblowers as insane. It has organised public meetings, lobbied and provided information to many individuals.

Victoria, with nearly the same population as NSW, has not had the same level of activity, though some individuals have poured heart and soul into the cause. Therefore one challenge for WBA is to foster groups in Victoria.

The next three most populated states exhibit a strong contrast. The Whistleblowers Action Group in Queensland has a long record of action, though outside of Brisbane things are patchy. There is a small branch in Adelaide that has taken some important initiatives. But there is no branch in Western Australia. I have talked to 15 or more people in Perth who would be willing to attend a meeting of whistleblowers, but no one yet has been willing to take the initiative to call one.

Australia's next largest cities are Newcastle, Canberra, Gold Coast and Wollongong. We have had occasional meetings in Wollongong which, in any case, is within range of Sydney. There has been less organised activity in the other cities. Canberra is especially important because of its role as national capital. The same assessment can be continued for other cities and towns. There has been considerable activity in some, such as Hobart, and little in others such as Geelong. One or two individuals can make a big difference.

Since whistleblowers are likely to be found just about anywhere in roughly similar proportions, the goal should be thriving whistleblower support groups throughout the country. There’s a long way to go!

The second key function for the national committee is fostering interaction and mutual support between whistleblowers at a national level. National networking and support occurs mostly by phone, with some by email, fax and snail mail. Visits, when they occur, are important.

National-level interaction is partly achieved by meetings of the national committee itself. It is composed of the president, two vice-presidents, secretary, treasurer, national director, chairs of branches and up to six other committee members. Although there is no requirement that the national committee include members from across the country (except via the chairs of branches), we have tried to encourage people from different regions to stand for office. At present the members of the national committee are:

President, Brian Martin, Wollongong, NSW;

Vice President, Jean Lennane, Sydney, NSW;

Vice President, Christina Schwerin, Sale, Victoria;

Secretary, Rachael Westwood, Sydney, NSW;

Treasurer, Feliks Perera, Mount Coolum, Queensland;

National Director, Greg McMahon, Brisbane, Queensland;

Chair of NSW branch, Cynthia Kardell, Sydney, NSW;

Chair of SA branch, John Pezy, Adelaide, SA;

Committee member, Stewart Dean, Sydney, NSW;

Committee member, Anthony Quinn, Melbourne, Victoria;

Committee member, Bob Steele, Sydney, NSW;

Committee member, Grahame Wilson, Sydney, NSW.

It could be said that NSW domination in the national committee roughly reflects national membership statistics. The challenge is to increase both activity and membership throughout the country. The national committee needs to take the lead in this.

One difficulty is communication on a national level. Due to Australia’s size and the cost of travel, it is virtually impossible to get everyone on the national committee together in one place and time. If meetings are always held in Sydney, then Sydney dominance is reinforced. Holding the annual general meeting in Brisbane this year is a welcome change for this reason.

Sometimes we have developed policy without meeting face to face. For example, I have circulated proposals to the national committee by sending letters. If no one objects, then the proposal is taken as accepted. If there is an objection, then a revised proposal can be circulated or it can be discussed in a conference call.

Any member of the national committee can take the initiative to make proposals, initiate campaigns or float ideas with the rest of the committee. It is not a special obligation for the president. Greg McMahon, National Director, has taken the running with the initiative to highlight whistleblower cases of national significance, especially as a means of promoting whistleblower legislation. This is a good example of the third important function of the national committee, namely coordinating initiatives and campaigns with national dimensions.

What I’ve described so far is what the national committee should be doing ideally: supporting new and existing whistleblower groups, fostering mutual support at a national level and coordinating national-level initiatives. The president is ideally placed to oversee and promote these activities. However, the reality is a bit different!

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to individual whistleblowers. Sometimes they contact me because they’ve heard me on radio. Sometimes they ring after getting my number from the message on the WBA-NSW phone. Sometimes they write after seeing an article of mine. Increasingly, they send an email after seeing my web site. Like others who are contacted, I listen, send an information packet if desired, recommend the nearest meeting or contact person and make specific referrals if appropriate.

Answering individual enquiries is not a formal part of the president’s job, but it is inevitable for anyone who gains some visibility in the whistleblowing area. The stronger the organisation, the easier it is to deal with enquiries. Depending on their case, people can be referred to others who are more appropriate. For example, I refer callers involved in building industry disputes to Cynthia Kardell and refer police whistleblowers to Jean Lennane. If the caller is concerned about scholarly misconduct, then I’m the person they should be referred to!

Some callers want more than a referral and more than advice: they want or expect WBA to take official action on their behalf. The sad reality is that we don’t have the resources to do this. Therefore I’m thankful for our policy not to take on individual cases.

I’ve been contacted by members who want me to take action on some important case, for example to issue a media release, to write letters to government departments or even to write letters to all politicians. Many of these cases are indeed important and worthy of support. However, even just a handful of such cases would use up all available energy among national committee members, many of whom have their own cases as well. If we became advocates for individuals, we would have to say no to nearly everyone anyway.

It seems to me important that the national committee focus on building up branches, liaison and campaigns. In the long run, this will bring in more people and help develop skills in dealing with whistleblower cases, and thus provide more help than dealing with every urgent case as it arrives. WBA has the same dilemma that faces every service that is overloaded with worthy applicants. If all the effort is spent on specific cases, there is nothing left for long-term strategies dealing with the roots of the problems. In addition, constantly dealing with emergencies is a prescription for burnout.

Advocacy for whistleblowers is important, whether by paid counsel or volunteers. However, this is different from WBA, or WBA office bearers, being expected or required to be advocates for individuals. This would be a prescription for failure and hurt, since some whistleblowers are bound to judge efforts on their behalf as inadequate in quantity or quality. Official channels, such as grievance procedures, anticorruption commissions and courts, regularly fail to deliver what they promise. For WBA to promise advocacy would be to follow in their footsteps.

A less welcome part of the president’s job is dealing with disputes within WBA. Like any organisation, the person at the top is seen as the person of last resort for making complaints.

Every area of life with which I’ve come in contact - universities, environmental groups and amateur music, among others - has its share of interpersonal conflict, faction fighting and nasty dealings. WBA is no exception. The potential problems are greater because whistleblowers are strong-willed and sometimes unbending characters, many of whom have been severely traumatised by their experiences.

Furthermore, whistleblowers are united only by their whistleblowing and the attacks they have suffered. They have a variety of views on social and political issues and a variety of personal styles. Added to the mix are people with grievances, real or imagined, who are looking for someone to complain to and who chance upon WBA.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that WBA has had its quota of internal battles. One thing I soon learned as president is that office bearers can come under attack simply because of the positions they occupy. It is possible to be condemned for taking action or not taking action, with no option free of criticism.

People may complain to me, but the president of WBA has no real power. Any power in the organisation is collectively held by the national committee, of which the president is just one member. I am rather bemused when a member contacts me asking me to ensure than some other committee member does their job. Naturally I will do what I can to help the organisation to run more smoothly, but being an enforcer is not part of the job description! In any case, WBA is a voluntary organisation, not an employer with paid staff to boss around.

In the past couple of years there have not been such serious conflicts involving the national committee, but there are no guarantees for the future. One of the challenges facing the national committee is to develop procedures to reduce the risk and impact of debilitating conflict, without making things too bureaucratic. If we can turn some of the energy spent on complaining, backbiting and internal conflict toward solving whistleblowers’ problems, we will be effective indeed!

Personally, I think that when WBA is involved in advocacy for individuals there is a greater risk of conflict. This is because advocacy inevitably identifies some individuals as more worthy and others as less so. Hence I prefer WBA to concentrate on helping people help themselves: self-help, mutual support and provision of information.

If things are rolling along relatively smoothly, then why will I be standing down as president come November? The main reason is that it will be nearly four years since I took on the job. It’s time for someone else to have a go and to inject their enthusiasm and personal vision into the national committee.

I hope to continue as a committee member, perhaps with the title of "international contact." I have been in touch with whistleblowers and whistleblower organisations in several countries and can build on this experience. WBA is extraordinarily successful when compared to what’s happening in other countries. Only Britain has a similar organisation - Freedom to Care - composed largely of whistleblowers. In the United States, the Government Accountability Project does superb advocacy, but it can handle only a tiny fraction of cases. There is no general whistleblower membership organisations in the country. It is even worse in Canada and New Zealand, where there are no whistleblower groups and it is not obvious where to refer a whistleblower. For all its undoubted weaknesses, WBA is a wonderful asset.

In my years as WBA president, I have learned an enormous amount about whistleblowing from whistleblowers themselves and especially from experienced members of WBA. To pass on some of this insight, I’ve written a book, The Whistleblower’s Handbook, that will be published this year by Envirobooks in Sydney and Jon Carpenter in Britain. I even included some comments about whistleblower groups, based largely on my experience with WBA.

It’s important to remember that official positions in WBA are just that: positions with names. Having worked on issues involving dissent and whistleblowing since the late 1970s, I knew a lot about the issues before becoming president. But suddenly, as president, people thought I was more of an authority. Being in the position certainly helped me to gain more knowledge.

My point is that there are many knowledgeable and supportive people - some who are members of WBA and some who are not - who can help whistleblowers and help deal with the problems about which whistleblowers are concerned. Many of them have no official position, but they are valuable nonetheless. The challenge for WBA is to draw on all these people to achieve our common aims.

Brian Martin
President Whistleblowers Australia Inc