Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney has asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate Human Services Minister Alan Tudge over the leaking of a Centrelink client’s personal information to journalists, alleging he broke social security laws.
Blogger and single mother Andie Fox wrote a piece published in Fairfax media on February 6 outlining what she portrayed as cruel and Kaftaesque treatment at the hands of Centrelink, who she said were chasing her for a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt because her ex had failed to lodge a tax return.
She said she received no child support, had been barred from claiming FTB and could have part of her wages sequestered to pay back her ex’s debt.
Fox, an economist, described a ‘vortex of humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic procedures’ and said she was left feeling ‘terrorised by Centrelink’ and ‘angry, emotional, confused, dependent and idiotic’.
But her allegations made the Department of Human Services (DHS) see red. It disputed many of her claims and supplied details about her situation to a Canberra Times journalist.
The Department hit back and said the FTB debt was because Ms Fox underestimated her income, failed to lodge a tax return, did not confirm income information and waited two years to tell Centrelink she had split with her partner.
Centrelink claimed it had cancelled the debt related to her partner not lodging a tax return after she eventually told them they had separated.
Centrelink General Manager Hank Jongen disputed Fox’s version of events and said Centrelink made multiple attempts to contact her by phone and letter but most went unanswered.
Ms Burney said: “Alan Tudge has serious questions to answer. At best, his conduct is unethical. At worst, it is illegal.
“The release of this confidential information is a gross breach of trust. How can Australians have confidence that this Government will keep their confidential personal information safe?”
But Mr Tudge has argued that he has broken no laws and that the Department was entitled to correct false statements, especially where they could undermine public confidence in the system.
“Where a person makes a false public statement about their dealings with the Department of Human Services, whether through the media or otherwise, social security law and family assistance law enables the Department to disclose customer information to the extent that it is necessary to correct factual inaccuracies or potentially misleading information,” Mr Tudge said in a statement.
“These provisions are important in order for our public institutions to be able to correct the record when false accusations are made about their conduct. If unanswered, accusations of this kind may have the effect of diminishing public confidence in them.”
He said the information supplied by his office about Ms Fox to Fairfax Media was approved by the Department’s Chief Legal Counsel and only provided to correct Ms Fox’s ‘false assertions’.
Meanwhile, senate estimates earlier this week revealed that DHS staff trawled social media to find Centrelink complaints, referring them to Mr Tudge where necessary.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who will be leading the parliamentary inquiry into Centrelink’s robo-debt stuff-ups, said it was ‘deeply concerning’. She said it could frighten people and deter them from complaining in case their details were leaked to the press to discredit them later.
“They’re then taking these complaints rather than seeking to remedy them, and might release your personal details to ‘correct the record’ to protect the ‘public confidence’ and ‘integrity’ of the social security system,” Ms Siewert said.
“The Department confirmed they keep an eye on traditional media but to trawl social media is a new development that raises strong concerns. This looks to me more about trying to discourage people from speaking out.”
She said the government should instead channel its efforts into remedying incorrect debt notices that were distressing benefit claimants.
“I am deeply concerned that the Department doesn’t have any understanding of the number of overpayments are a result of Centrelink error and don’t seem worried that they don’t.”
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