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Blow to tax office whistleblower as appeal rejected

Former Australian Taxation Office worker Richard Boyle has lost an appeal to halt his criminal prosecution over allegedly releasing protected information about debt collection tactics in the Adelaide office.

Jun 19, 2024, updated Jun 19, 2024
Richard Boyle leaves the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Richard Boyle leaves the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Boyle, a former Adelaide-based public servant, blew the whistle on aggressive debt-recovery practices at the ATO in 2018 and is now facing 24 charges relating to the release of that information.

The alleged offences, which are being pursued by federal prosecutors, relate to unlawfully gathering documents and recording conversations.

Boyle had claimed immunity from prosecution under the whistleblower provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, but this claim was rejected in March 2023 by the District Court of South Australia.

Boyle appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of South Australia.

But in a unanimous judgement handed down today, Justices David Lovell, Samuel Doyle and Sophie David dismissed Boyle’s appeal.

Lovell suppressed publication of the reasons behind their judgement until 10am on Thursday.

The Court of Appeal’s decision means Boyle will – barring a High Court challenge or an intervention from federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus – face trial in the District Court on charges that could send him to jail.

Boyle is due to stand trial on September 2.

Richard Boyle

Richard Boyle leaves the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Boyle revealed to a joint ABC and Fairfax media investigation in 2018 that ATO staff had been instructed to use harsher debt collection tactics on indebted individuals and small businesses, including orders to require a bank to hand over money.

He first raised his concerns through internal ATO processes and then made a complaint to the tax ombudsman before going to the media.

Follow-up reviews found Boyle’s allegations of aggressive debt recovery practices at the ATO at the time were valid.

A federal parliamentary report also found the ATO had conducted a “superficial” investigation into his claims.

Former senator Rex Patrick, who last year established a “Whistleblower Justice Fund” to support Boyle and now jailed army whistleblower David McBride, said today’s decision was “just another nail in the coffin of whistleblowing here in Australia”.

“There’s no good that will come from this prosecution,” Patrick said outside court today.

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“We want people to blow the whistle when they see something going wrong.

Rex Patrick

Rex Patrick outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

“It’s a critical part of our democracy to have people on the inside reporting misconduct.

“That will not occur unless we protect our whistleblowers.”

Patrick said the Supreme Court’s decision today showed federal whistleblower protection laws are “broken”.

He also called on the Attorney-General to drop the prosecution.

Dreyfus has previously declined to comment directly on Boyle’s case but has said he hoped to update the Public Interest Disclosure Act to reform and improve the scheme protecting whistleblowers.

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Kieran Pender said the prosecution had demonstrated significant issues and uncertainties in Australian whistleblower protection legislation.

“Following this judgment, it is now incumbent on the Albanese government to proceed with comprehensive law reform and the establishment of a whistleblower protection authority,” he said.

“Whistleblowers make Australia a better place. They should be protected, not punished.”

– With Abe Maddison/AAP

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