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BFCSA: 'Clear duty to intervene': Government under pressure to save whistleblower

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'Clear duty to intervene': Government under pressure to save whistleblower

Sydney Morning Herald March 8, 2019 12.00am

Adele Ferguson


EXCLUSIVE  Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick has called on the federal government to step in and stop the prosecution of former public servant Richard Boyle who is facing 161 years in prison after blowing the whistle on poor culture at the Australian Taxation Office.

Senator Patrick wrote to Attorney-General Christian Porter on Thursday saying if the case proceeded it would make a mockery of the government’s advances in whistleblower policy, discourage whistleblowers across the public sector and undermine public confidence.

“It is your clear duty to intervene and bring this prosecution to an end,” Senator Patrick says in a two-page letter.

Mr Boyle has been charged with 66 offences that could see him serve six life sentences if found guilty potentially topping the punishment handed out to serial killers such as Ivan Milat.

A hearing has been set down for late March in the Adelaide Magistrates Court.

The charges include recording conversations of ATO staff without consent and making a record of protected information, which was handed to a third party. The summons sheet lists Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan as the informant.

Mr Boyle worked in the ATO’s debt recovery business in Adelaide from 2005 until 2018 when he was terminated.

He became a whistleblower after raising concerns that lives were being destroyed by the heavy-handed debt collection tactics of the ATO, partly motivated by revenue targets. He described it as a “cash grab” to meet targets before the end of the financial year.

Mr Boyle went public in April 2018 in a joint media investigation by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and ABC's Four Corners, which blew the lid on abuses by the ATO against small business and individuals.

Months before going public he made a disclosure under the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure (PID) Act 2013 to the ATO, which was investigated by a senior ATO investigator and dismissed.

Senator Patrick, who met with Mr Boyle last week, says in his letter that while the ATO had dismissed Mr Boyle's concerns, those same issues had prompted Treasury and Inspector General of Taxation reviews and were a catalyst to the quick passage of “access to justice” laws on the last sitting day.

“There is no doubt that it constituted a valid [disclosure] that raised serious allegations about highly unethical conduct by ATO staff, contrary to the Australian Public Service code of conduct set out in the section 13 of the Public Service Act 1999,” he said.

For that reason, Senator Patrick argues in the letter, Mr Boyle should be protected from reprisal and that the Attorney-General had the power under the Judiciary Act to call off the ATO's prosecution.

“If the prosecution of Mr Boyle is allowed to proceed it will act as a very powerful disincentive to ATO staff, and indeed Australian public service staff generally, contemplating making public interest disclosures."

"It would make an absolute mockery of the government’s declared support for the public interest disclosure regime."

Senator Patrick called on Mr Porter, to act in the public interest and exercise his “clear authority” as Attorney-General to decline to proceed further in the prosecution of Mr Boyle.

Mr Porter's spokesman said the letter from Senator Patrick raised complex issues that were before the court.

"The Attorney-General will consider the letter thoroughly and seek advice on the content," the spokesman said.

The ATO declined to comment.

Senator Patrick is the second politician this week to wade into the Boyle whistleblower scandal. Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh confirmed he organised a meeting on Friday with tax commissioner Chris Jordan to discuss the case against Mr Boyle and the ATO’s broader whistleblowing policy.

The Australian Financial Review reported on Thursday that Small and Family Business Minister Michaelia Cash had asked the small business ombudsman to review ATO treatment of small businesses involved in legal disputes, including moves to begin recovery of debts before cases are resolved.

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