Updated: Jan 18
Richard Boyle is a former Australian Tax Office (ATO) employee and whistleblower. He is currently seeking protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PID) after revealing details to Australian media about the tactics used by the ATO in pursuing tax debts.
Mr. Boyle is charged with 24 offences which include recording private conversations without consent and taking photos of taxpayer information. Mr. Boyle argues that these actions were in pursuit of collecting evidence towards his public interest disclosure. If Mr. Boyle fails in his attempt to convince the district court judge that his actions fell within whistleblower protections, he will face trial and potentially a prison sentence.
In early October 2022, Mr. Boyle told South Australia's district court how, having tried already to report his observations internally in October of 2017 and being dissatisfied with the process, he felt compelled to reveal his findings to the media. Mr. Boyle's dissatisfaction with the ATO's internal investigation was vindicated after a Senate inquiry found their investigation to be "superficial" and not to standard.
Senator Rex Patrick, who sat on the senate committee, had claimed that if the ATO had "done its job properly," Mr. Boyle would not have needed to take the actions he did:
"This is the important point...The ATO’s investigation was superficial. But for the superficial nature into Mr Boyle’s public interest disclosure, those other events that followed, that being the complaint to the IGT, the media programs, the charges and so forth, would never have occurred... If the ATO had only done its job properly, none of the alleged activities, they’re alleged at this stage, would have occurred and in my view the tax office would have been in a much better situation.”
Mr. Boyle also described the ATO to the court as a "dysfunctional organisation," and detailed instances of the ATO pressuring staff to use heavy-handed tactics against Australians, including those who were currently ill or suffering from natural disasters or abuse. These tactics included use of Garnishee notices, which allowed third parties, such as banks, to take taxpayer's money from their accounts directly and then provide it to the ATO. This practice had been criticised for "destroying the lives of families and small business owners across the country." Mr. Boyle noted that he was concerned for taxpayers who may be at risk of suicide or harm as a result of being engaged by the ATO with these strategies.
He also described an incident, with reference to the culture at the ATO, wherein a manager was hesitant to approve his sick leave after Mr. Boyle had been punched in the head and described the culture at the ATO as being "so woeful it would make your hair curl":
“I didn’t feel I could trust those managers."
Mr. Boyle also discussed the "maladministration" within the ATO, noting how he was placed "under undue scrutiny," and bullied once he spoke out. According to Mr. Boyle, this behaviour led to him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and "catastrophic psychological injury"
With regards to the collection of taxpayer information, Mr. Boyle claims that he did this "randomly" and in order to document evidence of the issues he observed within the ATO. Regarding the audio recording of conversations as opposed to taking written notes, Mr. Boyle defended these actions claiming it was both for his own lawful interest but also in the public interest to do so, as he believed that employees within the ATO would lie about what he had observed:
"It would be unequivocal and objective evidence, rather than my hand-taken notes."
If he fails to convince the district court judge that his actions are covered by whistleblower protections within the PID Act, he will face a trial and a potential prison term. Fellow whistleblower, David McBride, recently attempted to use the PID as his defence for charges, but was forced to withdraw after the Commonwealth lawyers issued a public interest immunity claim, essentially blocking Mr. McBride from using evidence from two witnesses critical to his defence.
Mr. Boyle's case has been described as a "a critical first test of the strength and effectiveness of national whistleblower protections," with Mr. Boyle himself having been described as a "model whistleblower." Mr. Boyle has seemingly followed every action required of him under the PID Act, by first raising concerns internally and only then approaching outside parties. Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, noted that Mr. Boyle's claims had already been substantiated by outside parties:
“Boyle has been vindicated by three independent inquiries, which collectively found that the ATO had misused its debt recovery powers, and that the ATO’s internal investigation of Boyle’s whistleblowing was superficial...Yet he finds himself on trial for telling the truth.
Mr. Pender and Kobra Moradi, a lawyer at the Australian Centre for International Justice, have called on the Attorney-General to correct Australia's whistleblower laws and establish proper protections towards properly defending both Mr. Boyle and Mr. McBride:
"Whistleblowers should be protected, not punished. The McBride case – together with the prosecution of Richard Boyle, a public servant who blew the whistle on wrongdoing in the tax office – send a chilling message to other Australians who wish to speak up. They undermine our democracy and limit the ability of all Australians to call out wrongdoing. The attorney general must also urgently fix federal whistleblowing law. The shield in the PID Act on which McBride and Boyle are relying is fundamentally flawed. Dreyfus, who introduced the law in 2013, has admitted as much. But his commitment to fixing it has so far been slow and tentative. Law reform must be accompanied by long-overdue institutional progress – the government should establish a whistleblower protection authority to oversee and enforce these laws.