Centrelink discloses debt-recovery information of affected clients going public

By @mik_mapa on
Centrelink
A man walks into a Centrelink, part of the Australian government's department of human services where job seekers search for employment, in a Sydney suburb, August 7, 2014. Reuters/Jason Reed

Victorian Legal Aid executive director Dan Nicholson has warned clients affected by a faulty debt-recovery system that their confidential information will be disclosed when they speak publicly. It was brought up after an unprecedented action by Centrelink where it forwarded its client's details to Fairfax Media.

"It's important to remember the real human consequence of this decision. We would now have to advise any person who thinks they have an incorrect Centrelink debt that, if they speak publicly about their situation, their confidential information is no longer safe with Centrelink," Nicholson said in a statement. He described it as an unsatisfactory situation.

In February, blogger Andie Fox wrote an opinion article for the media outfit claiming that Centrelink has terrorised her for a debt that she did not owe. Centrelink responded her opinion piece by sending her personal details to the media outfit. A few weeks later, Fairfax published an article with Fox's history of claiming the Family Tax Benefit, relationship circumstances and personal information.

The Deparment of Human Services (DHS) spokesperson said that the disclosure of the information was intended to correct public statements of complaints. " Such disclosures are made for the purposes of the social security law or the family assistance law, they do not need to be formally authorised by the secretary. Unfounded allegations unnecessarily undermine confidence and take staff effort away from dealing with other claims. We will continue to correct the record on such occasion," the spokesperson, according to the ABC.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge said that the action was legal pertaining to the Social Security Act 1999's section 202. He also cited the A New Tax System Family Administration Act 1999's section 162 as a reference.

Australian National University (ANU) social security legal expert Peter Sutherland said that Centrelink's action appeared to be a new practice. "I am not aware of any previous occasion where a disclosure of this nature has been made under this provision of the social security law.It is arguable whether the department is authorised by the statute as they claim.However, only the courts could determine the lawfulness or otherwise of their action, possibly through a test case by constitutional write in the Federal Court," Sutherland said.

Labor's human services spokeswoman Linda Burney accused the government for seeking a revenge due to the situation. She also accused DHS on its deeply unethical actions."The disclosure has occurred deliberately to smear a private individual who has spoken out about the error-prone robo-debt program and the deeply flawed Centrelink debt recovery process. Correcting the record is one thing, attempting to smear and discredit opponents is entirely different and far more troubling," Burney said.