‘I wanted to die’: Homeless for six months
When chartered accountant Wendy Addison blew the whistle on corporate fraud in 2000, she never could have imagined the consequences.
After exposing the misuse of millions of dollars by her employer, South African company LeisureNet, Ms Addison was fired and received death threats aimed at herself and her son. She believed herself "untouchable" to future employers and ended up homeless for six months.
"I wanted to die," Ms Addison says, voice cracking as she remembers.
Ms Addison wears a purple suit and matching blazer. With straight blonde hair and an easy smile, it's hard to imagine this well-presented, self-assured woman was living rough on the streets with her 12-year-old son.
Whistleblowers rarely ever get happy endings. However, with new whistleblowing protection laws beginning in Australia on July 1, things might be looking up for them.
The Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill 2018 passed both houses on February 19 this year and will come into effect in just over a week's time.
This bill broadens the scope of those eligible for protection and improves access to compensation. Many Australian companies must have a comprehensive whistleblower policy in place by early next year.
Advocates believe these changes can't come soon enough in light of the AFP raids earlier this month on journalists' homes and offices discouraging future whistleblowers from speaking out.
THE TOLL OF WHISTLEBLOWING
Whistleblowing is hard, Ms Addison says, because it "goes against our need for social cohesion, to belong to the group, to remain loyal to your group".
Ms Addison was international treasurer for South African company LeisureNet. In 2000, she discovered two executives illegally sending millions of dollars to a New Jersey account, using the company as their own personal bank.
"That made me physically ill because I didn't want anyone to get into trouble," she says.
Telling a company that someone has committed fraud "is a bit like that difficult conversation you have with your teenage children about sex", Ms Addison says. "We're talking about human nature, and bad news is really difficult to hear."
Ms Addison brought up the issue with her colleagues but was dismayed to find herself being ignored and ostracised.
"(I felt) betrayal, anger, fear all wrapped into one," she says.
With her complaints going unheard, Ms Addison referred the matter to an external fraud organisation.
"I was fired from my job, and I lost my career," she says. "But what was worse was I could have potentially lost the life of my son. We began to receive death threats, and at one stage they sent a driver to my son's primary school to fetch him, just to show me they could.
"It was at that point I thought I need to leave the country."
Ms Addison moved to the UK in what she called "self-imposed exile" and became group treasurer at a British health club. "In a sheer twist of fate", she says, the British health club was bought by LeisureNet, and she was dismissed.
By now a known whistleblower, Ms Addison struggled to find employment. Her recruitment agency suggested she try another career, such as becoming a florist, and cut all associations with her.
A single mother, Ms Addison and her son begged on London's streets to survive.
"I called myself cardboard cut-out Wendy. I thought: 'I'm here to survive. I'm here to feed my son, and I have no aspirations for tomorrow'."
THE TOLL FOR AUSTRALIAN WHISTLE-BLOWERS
Sally McDow, an Australian who blew the whistle on Origin Energy in 2015, also had her life turned upside-down.
"Mentally and financially it was a very difficult time for me and my husband and my kids," she says.
Ms McDow was a risk management officer at Origin Energy when she came across a corporate issue she claims had been covered up.
Ms McDow had seen how terribly her colleagues' lives had turned out when they blew the whistle on this issue: "People got divorced, they became unemployable, they couldn't pay their mortgages."
So Ms McDow decided to fight them. After being terminated and victimised, with her professional reputation ruined, she took Origin Energy to court.
"I didn't realise at the time how long, how expensive and how stressful it would be. That's why people don't do it," she says.
Ms McDow's fight against the multibillion-dollar company lasted a gruelling 18 months.
Unlike most whistleblowers, she was in a unique position to use her skills as a litigator and a risk management officer. Some family members were also lawyers and helped her.
She was up against the might of Origin Energy, which had a huge legal team fighting for them.
However, in an Australian first, Ms McDow received compensation. Her case settled before going to trial, and some legal aspects of the case helped with the drafting of the new legislation.
Ms McDow signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement conditions and cannot go into the specifics of Origin Energy's wrongdoing.
"There's really not a lot of happy endings for whistleblowers," she says. "I count myself lucky."
The new legislation beginning on July 1 affects 33,000 businesses in Australia, aiming to make it easier for whistleblowers to speak out.
These changes shield whistleblowers from retaliation, such as loss of job and reputation, and legal consequences. The new law protects both current and former employees and also contractors, unpaid workers and relatives of those individuals.
Australia's previous laws did not protect whistleblowers from the legal fallout of speaking to the media. Now, if nothing has been done after 90 days, whistleblowers can report to the media or other outside authorities without being sued.
Jan Stappers, Legal Counsel at WhistleB, an international provider of whistleblowing solutions, says Australia's old laws were largely ineffective. "But now the new legislation in Australia is really top of the bill. It is really one of the best at this stage in the world," he says.
Mr Stappers says the European Union seems to be looking to Australia for its new whistleblowing protections.
"If the whistleblower is protected, he or she is more likely to speak out," he says.
The new laws "should encourage people on the receiving side like employers or authorities to listen out. Because speaking up is one part of the story, but listening out is another."
Ms McDow also welcomes the new laws, believing her case would have been easier if they'd been in place.
"Previously, companies may have had a (whistleblowing) policy, but it may have just sat on the shelf and no one quite knew where it was and what was in it," she says. "Whereas now the requirements are more stringent."
Workplaces have until January 1, 2020 to implement a comprehensive whistleblower policy, including secure channels and designated people to report to within organisations.
Ms McDow founded her own company, CPR partners, to help fellow whistleblowers. Now her organisation will train others on the new whistleblowing requirements.
However, the law still has problems, she says.
"The difficulty is that the onus is still on an individual whistleblower to enforce their protections," she says.
Justice is "out of reach for many … because it is so expensive. At the moment 99 per cent of Australians don't have $50,000, which is what (you need to pay into a lawyer's trust account) … just to start a case.
"It's hard to bring organisations in Australia to account."
WHISTLE-BLOWING IS BECOMING THE NEW NORMAL
"Transparency will eventually prevail," Mr Stappers strongly believes. "At first glance you might think this only benefits whistleblowers, but I'm convinced that it benefits the entire society including the employer."
He uses a lightning analogy to explain the importance of whistleblowers. Everyone used to want to avoid lightning at all costs to stop their houses from burning down. However, now everyone attracts lightning with a metal pin on their roofs so they can control and reduce the damage.
"And I think it's the same thing with whistleblowing," Mr Stappers says. "Because in the long-term, it is actually better to save yourself by attracting the whistleblowing and facilitating it."
Following the #Metoo movement and Australian royal commissions such as those into financial services and child sexual abuse, the perception towards whistleblowers is changing, according to Mr Stappers.
"Whistleblowers used to be seen as traitors, as disloyal to the organisation, even to society," he says.
"Now people are seeing whistleblowers as employees who are first of all very loyal to society and who also give the organisation an opportunity to deal with matters before they get out of hand."
Mr Stappers believes whistleblowers can get happy endings. "Doing the right thing, being transparent, fighting any type of wrongdoing, speaking up in a secure environment, in the long term, will make you successful."
Despite being brought to her lowest point possible, Ms Addison got her happy ending.
"I'm one of the few whistleblowers who got justice," she says.
After Ms Addison blew the whistle on LeisureNet in 2000, the company went under in what was considered the biggest corporate disaster in South African history.
The two joint chief executives at LeisureNet, Peter Gardener and Rodney Mitchell, were sentenced to seven years in a South African prison.
Ms Addison has since devoted herself to her own company, Speak Out, Speak Up, which teaches people how to have courageous conversations in light of her own experiences.
"Physical courage is easier," Ms Addison says.
"But moral courage is voluntarily being vulnerable, which is very difficult."
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp