Alan Tudge referred to Australian Federal Police by Linda Burney over Centrelink disclosure
3rd March 2017
Labor MP Linda Burney has asked the Australian Federal Police to determine whether Human Services Minister Alan Tudge broke the law by disclosing a welfare recipient’s personal information to a journalist.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) has defended the release of the welfare recipient’s personal and protected information, insisting it was proportionate and legal.
The release has been criticised by the Federal Opposition and lawyers who believe it may have a chilling impact on welfare recipients who would otherwise criticise the Government.
Blogger Andie Fox wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media early in February claiming Centrelink had “terrorised” her over a debt she claimed she did not owe.
A few weeks later, her personal details were supplied to a journalist who wrote a comment piece from the Government’s perspective, raising the prospect that Centrelink had been “unfairly castigated”.
Public servants have told a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra the “protected” information was collated by DHS officials and approved for release by Mr Tudge’s office.
The department sought legal advice before releasing the information but did not obtain a public interest certificate, with officials claiming they did not need to.
Mr Tudge and his department claimed the disclosure was legal according to section 202 of the Social Security Act 1999 and section 162 of the A New Tax System Family Administration Act 1999.
Lawyers believe this legal argument is untested and could become a test for privacy law.
In a statement, Mr Tudge said the Government took privacy “very seriously” and said information was released to the journalist after approval from the department’s chief legal counsel.
“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,” he said.
“These provisions are important in order for our public institutions to be able to correct the record when false statements are made about their conduct.
“If left unanswered, accusations of this kind may have the effect of dismissing public confidence in them.”
Ms Burney said the actions of Mr Tudge were reckless and immoral at best, and illegal at worst.
“What was revealed today (Thursday) in Senate Estimates was shocking,” she said.
“The private information of an individual who went to a government instrumentality appears to have been provided to a media outlet without her permission.
“If this is the case, then how can we can we trust this Government to look after anyone’s private information?”
It is common for politicians to refer matters to the federal police and doing so does not automatically trigger and investigation.
In her letter to AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin, Ms Burney said legal experts claimed a reliance on section 202 was “not available” and contrary to “a proper reading of the ACT and decades of established department practice”.
“An AFP spokesman confirmed the receipt of the letter and said it would be evaluated in accordance with normal procedures,” he said.