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No need for Centrelink to prove your comments are adverse: they only need to think so before exposing you to the media

Further to yesterday’s post on the release to Fairfax media of private information by Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, the minister has justified his decision to take this action on the grounds that he is entitled by law to reveal personal details if the individual has made complaints in the media Centrelink considers false.

In other words, if you complain in the media about Centrelink, your private information can be released by that department in its own defence.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s Use or disclosure of personal information regulations address this situation thus:

6.22 Examples of where an individual may reasonably expect their personal information to be used or disclosed for a secondary purpose include where:

the individual makes adverse comments in the media about the way an APP [Australian Privacy Principles] entity has treated them. In these circumstances, it may be reasonable to expect that the entity may respond publicly to these comments in a way that reveals personal information specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised[8]

The APPs and the APP guidelines apply from 12 March 2014 and cover both Australian Government agencies and organisations covered by the Privacy Act. 

I would argue that it is never reasonable to expect that Centrelink* will divulge your personal information to the media under any circumstances, and 6.22 needs to be scrapped. The paragraph makes no reference as to whether or not your adverse comments are justified. You only need to make comments Centrelink considers adverse for them to reveal your private information to the media. 

Criticism of a government agency can see you stripped of all privacy. Think about that.

This should make anyone who entrusts Centrelink and other government agencies with private information, very nervous.

At the same time, if you need Centrelink assistance you have no choice but to give them all the private information they require. This is a lose-lose situation for citizens, and it is entirely unacceptable.

Andie Fox, the subject of Tudge’s vengeful action, is a middle class professional woman, like millions of others who claim Family Tax Benefit, and the millions of older Australians who claim part pensions. Tudge, in this instance, has not gone after his stereotypical welfare recipient. So don’t feel you are safe in your demographic, because you aren’t. Should you get Centrelink offside, your private information can be given to the media whether your complaints are justified or not, without any consultation or warning.

There is a website titled “Not my debt” where you’ll find page after page of adverse commentary on Centrelink. There are thousands of critical tweets. There are hundreds of articles in mainstream media and the blogosphere dedicated to adverse commentary on Centrelink. Yet Alan Tudge went after one woman.

If you think your privacy is safe with government agencies as long as you keep your mouth shut, think about what kind of country you’re living in, and what kind of person you’re becoming because of it.

Centrelink is an apolitical body. An individual’s private information held by the agency must not employed as a silencing tool by the government of the day.

 

* All govt agencies – not just Centrelink – can disclose private info under 6.22.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.

 

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21 comments

  1. Michael

    Only thing for it – fair is fair – the person (for it takes some human to action) releasing the personal info (the authoriser and the researcher(?)) have their identical personal info released.

    If this is done under authority from a “higher” personage, such as a minister, then that personage’s equivalent personal info be released.

    Should that fix things?

  2. Zathras

    Will they be prepared to publish all the details in cases where Centrelink obviously stuffed up or is this only intended to make Centrelink appear as the victim?

    Anyway, why stop at Social Security? I’m sure the personal Tax records of certain prominent people would make more interesting reading.

    Both Departments should be under the same privacy umbrella after all.

  3. paulwalter

    Zathras, you know full-well that the oligarchy are exempt from these sorts of witchhunts and star chambers, applied to the common masses.

  4. Kronomex

    Now if you piss the LNP off they will release your private information to attack you for daring to question them. This is gutter tactics in it’s lowest form. How much lower can they sink?

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/01/think-trumps-travel-ban-was-bad-peter-dutton-may-soon-have-the-power-to-play-god

    Increasing this nasty little creeps power? Horrifying! We can only hope that Labor and the Greens (One Ashby…sorry, Nation will vote for it of course) step up to try and curtail the continuing fascism of the LNP.

  5. Chris

    Excellent reporting. Thanks Jennifer.

  6. Ill fares the land

    This really is the “diddums” moment for Centrelink and it is utterly pathetic, churlish and plain puerile for Centrelink to have the self-proclaimed power (under a guideline I might add) to release information about any Centrelink recipient (unless under an order of the Court) and even more puerile for the nincompoop Minister to weigh in to the debate. But that is the way of the conservative. Both Centrelink and the Minister are evidently rather sensitive about this issue at the moment – and perhaps they should be since the situation borders on absurd and is totally one of their own making.

    Neither should be allowed to make any unilateral decision about revealing personal information. If the Minister wishes, he can use the ultimate form of citizen abuse – parliamentary privilege, but that SHOULD be it for his public commentary. The reality is that Centrelink has to take criticism on the chin. That it won’t is just another example of the abjectly stupid world we live in where everyone thinks they have the right to fight back when they think they are wronged – regardless of the magnitude of the slight. Centrelink is charged with upholding the relevant laws – end of story. The ATO doesn’t reveal private information about taxpayers. Why is Centrelink not bound by the same constraints?

    I would also suggest that this is a case where Centrelink and the (nincompoop) Minister are clearly “in the wrong”, so in that delightfully Trump-esque way that liars and boofheads respond in the modern era, they both need to project the customary confected outrage to divert attention away from their own failings.

  7. jimhaz

    [Criticism of a government agency can see you stripped of all privacy. Think about that]

    Not all privacy, only issues “specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised”

    A department needs to have such a right. Not so sure about Ministers having any such right though – particularly when used for excuse making.

  8. paulwalter

    There are better ways and more appropriate places for a minister to embark on a defence of a department. it is why we have a thing called “Parliament”.

    It is not for a department to employ its resources to embark on selective smear campaigns against its victims through illegal leaking of private information to press lackeys.

    The least of several reasons for this are the apparent scarcity of resources within this department, to the extent that it can’t even process material it wants to process through an acute labour shortage.

    And we won’t consider the blatant unfairness of the process itself and its impact on millions of people, will we?

    You really do, desperately,need a humanity and ethics transplant, don’t you Jimhaz.

  9. jimhaz

    [You really do, desperately,need a humanity and ethics transplant, don’t you Jimhaz]

    I find it unethical to present things in a manner that is too lopsided.

    I do think the debt letter process is appalling, and think the minister should be sacked. I applaud people kicking the boot in in that regard, but I don’t think it wise to exaggerate problems for political reasons. I can separate the privacy issue from the debt policy/procedural issue.

  10. Roswell

    A department needs to have such a right.

    What the hell!!

  11. Sir ScotchMistery

    I have said before, and doubt I am wrong in reality that jimhaz is a troll. Just leave it to make Mal’s tea and be done with it.

  12. corvus boreus

    Jimhaz,
    Just checking, but you do realize that the minister responsible directed Centrelink management to employ an algorithm that was guaranteed to produce a majority of erroneous results (ie garnish funds through false charges of fraudulent debt)?
    Namely, that an aggregated formula calculated over each financial year was retroactively applied to welfare payments that had been calculated on a fortnightly basis, with an assumption of guilt being made, and the onus of disproof being placed upon the accused, who are now required, if choosing to challenge the claim of debt/fraud, to collect and correlate all their various employment and Centrelink data from the period in question, from long past the point that legal statute requires, then attempt to push such information through a system that was already well over-congested long before this monumental phuqqup, which has created huge volumes of righteous complaint, was implemented?

    You also realize that the same minister was then responsible for ‘bending’ the rules regarding circumstances for suspending confidentiality and enabling disclosure of individual information, stipulated as strictly confined to occurring between the department and the minister’s office, and choosing instead to sketchily apply such legal guidelines to a directive for Centrelink management to reveal ‘client’ information to commercial media as retribution/deterrent for public complaint?

    I know you that find expression of counter-consensus to be an admirable and worthy pursuit (and enjoy the intellectual exercise), but I think, in this case, you are trying to defend the indefensible.

  13. crypt0

    This is just what you can expect from the LieNP. .(Sorry to go off topic, but …)..
    Another e.g. not receiving enough coverage concerns the treatment handed out to homeless people in Melbourne by former Liebral leader, robert doyle (lord mayor.)
    Homeless people are liable to arrest, fine and jail if found “begging” or with sleeping gear on the streets of the CDB.
    If you are begging, does the lard mayor think you can afford fines of $180 or $300 – 400.?
    Yet he repeatedly says it’s not an offence or illegal to be homeless.
    The reality is different.
    Typical LieNP is to kiss up, and kick down on those least able to defend themselves.

  14. mark

    The powerful picking on the powerless,is lnp style,not my idea of a fair fight.mark

  15. oldfart

    so if a woman decides to have her details placed on the proposed national cancer screening register for cervical screening. Does that mean that if she is dissatisfied with the register and decides to complain publicly, her details may be disclosed?

  16. John

    Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people
    And elect another?

    Bertolt Brecht

  17. jimhaz

    [Would it not be easier
    In that case for the government
    To dissolve the people]

    as in Soylent Green

  18. Kyran

    From your initial article, Ms Wilson, there are two links with regard to the articles.
    Ms Fox’s article detailed her experience. Obviously, that was her experience and, reasonably, should be subject to scrutiny.
    “It all started when I began receiving calls from a debt collector, which I initially ignored.”
    If it all started when she received contact from a debt collector, the initiating agency and the debt collector are in trouble. Under most ‘Legal Practices Act’s’ in Australia (predominantly state administered), her first notification should have been from Centrelink, the alleged creditor. If you operate a business and you have a creditor, you ask them to pay you long before you go to a debt collector. If there were repeated contacts, or attempts to contact, at a place of employment, that is a clear breach of Sect 60 of the Trade Practices Act.
    “There is no link on the website through which you can explain that the debt they are chasing is your ex-partner’s fine for non-lodgement of tax returns, as was the situation in my case.”
    STD’s are often topical, but if you google ‘Sexually Transmitted Debt’, you will find it is far more prevalent than physical diseases. From memory, the ‘Consumer Action Law Centre’ have more than one reference to it.
    “In reply, it was suggested that perhaps the situation could be improved if I were to prove the relationship with my ex was truly over. Being de facto, the end of the relationship had no paperwork to speak on my behalf.”
    As a cynic, my normal approach would be to ask for details such as rental agreements, separate bank account details, school arrangements for the children. Apparently, Centrelink had no such notions.
    “I offered to give them my ex’s contact details, but ironically, privacy legislation prevented them from contacting him about either his past relationship or his tax fine, both things I had just been forced to describe at volume to a room full of strangers.”
    Not quite true. Privacy legislation does not prevent them from contacting her ex. It prevents them from doing things like ‘pre-text’ calls. There is nothing, in any privacy legislation that I am aware of, that could stop them from contacting him and stating who they are, where they are calling from, and asking him if he will verify information.
    “You would like to think that my story means at least the one in five errors are all being identified and eventually resolved, but it doesn’t. Many of my fellow Centrelink “clients” will lack the assertiveness, confidence, energy and literacy I used to fight for my case. The errors in their debt will not be found. Money will be taken, wrongfully, from some of the very poorest people in this country. I guarantee you they are terrified.”
    A 20% failure rate, that requires the other 80% to prove they are right. Nah, you got me.
    Mr Malone’s reply article.
    “The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.
    The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.”
    So, Centrelink are now debt collectors for the ATO?
    Without telling anyone?
    “Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner’s non-lodgement was cancelled.”
    From his article, no harm, no foul.
    From his article;
    “But Centrelink general manager Hank Jongen says Centrelink made numerous attempts to get in touch with Ms Fox via phone and letter but many of these attempts were left unanswered. Between November 16 and January 17 Centrelink made four phone calls and sent six letters to Ms Fox.”
    Numerous now means ten attempts over three months. Most agencies (tax, centrelink, medicare), don’t talk to each other, but they collaborate. Go figure
    “Centrelink says it was not until 2015 that she informed them that she had separated from her partner in 2013.
    Mr Jongen said the experience described by Ms Fox could have been avoided if she had informed the department she had separated from her partner in a timely way, and if she had lodged her tax returns in a timely way.”
    Ok, they don’t collaborate. Go figure.
    From his article;
    “More staff are needed, particularly during the peak month of July and from December to March each year when there is increased demand for help from families and students.
    For years I’ve thought that, of the three broad public service tasks – policy development, service delivery and regulation – far too many staff were allocated to policy development and far too few to the other two areas.
    Policy development is the high status activity, but service delivery and regulation are where people meet the service and rate its performance.”
    Was he being critical of Centrelink? What should Paul Malone expect? Asides from derision and contempt, not much, probably. He merely asked questions they were only too happy to answer.
    “Eleven per cent of Australians — both women and men — have suffered economic abuse at the hands of a partner, new research has found.
    Key points:
    • Nearly 16 per cent of women surveyed had a history of economic abuse
    • Seven per cent of men said they had been controlled by a partner through finances
    • Victims often present to banks or health workers unaware of subtle form of domestic violence, researcher says

    The term is used to describe a situation where one partner in a relationship controls another’s finances, often resulting in them becoming dependent on their abuser. But many people are not aware they are victims of this subtle form of domestic violence.”
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-02/finances-being-used-in-domestic-abuse-cases,-research-shows/8316566
    So, is Centrelink an abusive partner? Too long a bow to draw?
    Go figure.
    A ‘journalist’ approached a government department and asked them to refute the article. Read both articles. Secondary purpose, in privacy terms, has been violated. Can you imagine a ‘journalist’ asking the ATO for any government ministers tax returns to prove, or disprove, the claims made by the minister? Like a PM claiming he pays his taxes but needs offshore accounts to protect his interests. Too long a bow to draw?
    Thank you, Ms Wilson, and commenters. Take care

  19. paulwalter

    Kyran, it has been so typical of the Centrelink monstrosity since the beginning..a wellorganised exercise in irrational brutality, yet no serious actions on any level seems to have occurred to have the thing exposed and dealt with at anything but the isolated individual level.

    It seems almost as if the community is complicit, as the Germans were when the Jews and radicals were carted off to the camps.

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