Caught in the ACT: government cruelty, collusion and coverup

By Caroline Ambrus

Canberra: irrePRESSible Press, 2014

Prologue by Brian Martin

Caught in the ACT contains the stories of several Canberra residents who entered the world described by Franz Kafka - a bureaucratic nightmare. They seem to have antagonised government officials because they resisted arbitrary demands. Even worse, they sought to expose rule violations by the officials who were making demands of them. They entered a long tunnel of letters, complaints, demands, appeals, expense and stress.

The book also contains an analysis of the ACT government and its problematical features, such as having only one chamber and administering a small population where personal connections and conflicts of interest abound.

Most Canberra residents, if they are lucky, will go through their lives and never be aware of the petty bureaucratic struggles occurring in their seemingly placid suburbs. Yet in households here and there throughout the city, there is continual angst and anger at officials and politicians who toss their weight around and are seemingly unaccountable.

I do not know the author, Caroline Ambrus. Nor have I independently studied the cases she describes in exquisite detail. However, the cases ring true based on my long involvement with whistleblowers. So let me explain the connection between whistleblowers and the Canberra residents whose stories are told here.

A typical whistleblower is a conscientious employee who believes the system works. When encountering some apparent problem, this dutiful employee reports it to the boss. Sometimes the right thing is done: the matter is investigated and, if necessary, problems are fixed. But in some cases, the employee has inadvertently stumbled onto something bigger. For example, the boss might be involved in a scam or tolerating corrupt operations by others. The loyal employee, by becoming aware of the issue, become a threat to the dodgy operators. And so reprisals begin: petty harassment, ostracism, referral to psychiatrists, reprimands, even dismissal.

This is just the beginning. The conscientious employee who believes in the system realises that the reprisals are unfair and seeks justice, by appealing to the boss's boss, to the board of management, to the Ombudsman, an anti-corruption agency, the courts or any number of other appeal bodies. Having talked to hundreds of whistleblowers, what happens next is predictable to me: the various appeal processes and agency do not fix the problem. Sometimes they make it worse.

The reality is that taking on a more powerful opponent is nearly always a no-win proposition. Usually the only things that can give the employee a chance are publicity and collective action. Media coverage can make a big difference, and so can efforts by trade unions and action groups.

The saddest aspect of the typical whistleblowing story is the unwelcome realisation that the system does not provide justice. The world can be very unfair, and the rules don't seem to matter to those administering them.

The individuals whose stories are told in Caught in the ACT do not fit conventional definitions of whistleblowers. They are not employees, but rather citizens trapped in fruitless struggles over seemingly petty matters. But there are important similarities between their stories and those of whistleblowers. In both cases, something is wrong and, rather than acquiescing, individuals decide to resist, pointing out that the rules haven't been followed. Reading the stories, the actions by ACT officials look to me very much like reprisals - reprisals for refusing to give in and for pointing out that officials have violated their own rules.

In writing Caught in the ACT, Caroline Ambrus has taken the most important step in challenging abuses, which is to document the problem and explain it to others. Some of the stories are quite complicated; the careful explanations of their complexities are one aspect of the book that impresses me. In studying cases of dissent, abuse and bureaucratic bungling, the stories are invariably complex, and it is incredibly hard for anyone to explain what happened in a clear and logical fashion.

You do not have to accept Caroline Ambrus' perspective and interpretations, but there is sufficient material here to show that things could be done better, and should be done better. For this reason, this book deserves to be read.

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