Welfare Agency Responds To Criticism By Feeding Complainant's Personal Info To Obliging Journalist

from the your-personal-life-is-the-govt's-fainting-couch dept

Really can’t say enough good things about public servants, especially when their response to criticism is to expose personal details in a published interview.

Andie Fox wrote an article for the Canberra Times about her struggle to get an ex’s debt removed from her record. Following several calls from Centrelink — Australia’s Department of Human Services — attempting to recover this misplaced debt, Fox spent hours — including most of day she took off from work — trying to speak to human being directly about her situation. As is par for the bureaucratic course, this was almost impossible.

I soon found out that to even ask the simplest question about a Centrelink debt requires you to throw yourself into a vortex of humiliating and frustrating bureaucratic procedures.

[…]

Having gone as far as I could on the website, I eventually pressed the Centrelink employee and asked that I please be able to just speak to someone directly. I joined another queue. A different staff member saw me at a counter and, again, I relayed my story. Increasingly, I shed any dignity around discussing the details of my break-up and finances.

Here, you have a three-minute window. You have to speak quickly. You have to speak loudly, so nothing is missed. There is no other way to put this, you sound nuts. You are literally announcing the wreckage of your life to a complete stranger in a room full of other strangers.

This is only a short sampling from Fox’s article. In addition to providing services like welfare, Centrelink goes after people it feels it may have handed out undeserved benefits to. Her problem was eventually resolved — not on site — but after her article’s publication.

Centrelink apparently felt Fox’s case was an aberration. Someone from the agency spoke to Paul Malone of the Sydney Morning Herald to “set the record straight.” Apparently, setting the record straight involves handing over specific details of a person’s relationships/tax payments to a journalist. (And the journalist’s decision to publish these details? Well, that’s on him.)

Included in the rebuttal piece were details Fox hadn’t shared in her article. Like when the relationship had ended and which years the disputed tax assessment covered.

But Centrelink has a different story.

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.

[…]

Centrelink says it was not until 2015 that she informed them that she had separated from her partner in 2013.

According to Centrelink, it did nothing wrong and violated no privacy laws by handing over this information to a third party — a third party that would make them completely public.

The department confirmed that Fox’s personal information was approved for release to Fairfax Media. It said it was necessary to correct the public record about several inaccurate claims Fox had made.

The information was approved for release by a deputy secretary. The department’s head of legal services and general counsel both said they were comfortable with the release of the information. It was then provided to Fairfax Media by the office of the human services minister, Alan Tudge.

The department claims it has the right to dump personal info if it feels it needs to “correct the record.” That seems incredibly petty, if not possibly illegal. But the wonderful thing about government agencies like Centrelink is that it can simply waive someone else’s privacy protections without breaking the law or consulting any higher authority.

Ordinarily it would be an offence for social services staff to disclose “protected information” held by the agency, which would include a person’s Centrelink details. But the secretary has a broad discretionary power to release information “to such persons and for such purposes” as they deem fit.

The spokeswoman said such disclosures did not need to be formally authorised by the department’s secretary.

So… it’s not really “protected information,” is it? Not if a government agency can instantly strip away the protection without further legal review and for no better reason than contradicting perceived slights delivered by bloggers/journalists.

And it’s not as though citizens can do anything at all to prevent Centrelink from distributing this information at its own discretion, much less compiling a wealth of personal details. Dealing with the government is one of life’s few certainties. No one really gets to “opt out.” And if Centrelink is making any guarantees about protecting personal information in the multitudinous forms it asks citizens to fill out, it’s completely full of shit.

Update: And full of shit Centrelink may be. This just in from The Register:

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is investigating whether it’s acceptable for an Australian government department to release personal data when seeking to correct the public record when clients recount their interactions with government agencies.

The office has told The Register it’s “making inquiries with the Department of Human Services” after a Canberra Times article offered a rebuttal to a blogger’s account of her interactions with payments agency Centrelink.

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Comments on “Welfare Agency Responds To Criticism By Feeding Complainant's Personal Info To Obliging Journalist”

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22 Comments
incompetence begets privacy invasions says:

incompetant government

turnbull government is headed for the scraphead so its ministers are scrambling to destroy the entire legacy of this aweful outgoing government. the people have had enough so it seems there is now no rules for them to engage in any stupid idiotic charade like this unfortunate episode. they are out at the next election probable for a very long time the wankers.

nerd bert (profile) says:

Re: incompetant government

Incompetence? Probably. But it’s also a sign of how screwed up civil service rules are that you can’t fire folks for this kind of screw up. And the lack of accountability leads them to a sense of divine lordship over the hoi polloi; government goes from serving the people to ruling the people.

jon (profile) says:

Welfare Agency Responds To Criticism By Feeding Complainant's Personal Info To Obliging Journalist

Over the years I have had some dealings with Centrelink and the ONLY way to get an actual and genuine response from Centrelink (as opposed to the canned response mandated by the Minister)is to deal with them from behind a solicitor (lawyer).

But of course this costs money. So very few do it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'Oh, NOW you pay attention to my request...'

Seems to be a problem increasingly infected many government agencies, no matter the country. If you want to get a response more informative than you’d get from talking to a literal wall bring a lawyer, because nothing less than an imminent threat of a lawsuit will get a serious response(and even that’s not a guarantee, far too often it takes an actual lawsuit instead of just the threat of one).

Anonymous Coward says:

Centrelink debt debacle

The history of this is even better.

The current ultraconservative government decided that they needed to reduce spending to balance the budget. Despite a range of proposals being floated by various economists, the government decided that the *only* way to save money was to collect as much as possible from the poorest citizens, via welfare and pension cuts. Thankfully we’ve had an upper house which is not controlled by the government which has blocked the most egregious of the cuts, though the government keeps on changing the wording of the bills and trying again.

This Centrelink program I think is one that they could do without legislation. The agency basically cross referenced their data with data from the tax office despite being warned that the datasets weren’t compatible, and have sent debt collection letters to anyone for whom the income reported to Centrelink doesn’t match their tax records. This has resulted in an accepted rate of at least 20% of these notices being sent in error (and some have suggested it might be as high as 90%.) Centrelink frontline staff have been told by management *not* to correct or stop these notices, even if they see obvious errors in them.

People have had to go through an extraordinary ordeal to even be able to dispute these notices. As a bonus, they are told that they have to pay the debt even while the dispute is in process. They have reluctantly agreed to collect it in installments in the many cases where people simply can’t afford to cough up the full amount.

This is an incredible attack on the poorest section of society. Granted that there are some who are rorting the system, it shouldn’t give the government carte blanche to retrieve it in such a bullying and distressing manner. The sooner this government is voted out, the happier I’ll be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Centrelink debt debacle

It is indeed of catastrophic (for the "recipients" at least) proportions. I highly recommend listening to the following audio documentary from the ABC Background Briefing program:

How Centrelink’s ‘robodebt’ ran off the rails

The government’s troubled debt recovery system has caused an uproar. Thousands of welfare recipients have been hit with debts which they have no idea how they were calculated. There’s now a Senate Inquiry and an Ombudsman’s investigation. Colin Cosier investigates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Marriage is a partnership

when viewed financially, marriage is a business partnership,
with one party able to accrue debt on the other party.

While only a doomed marriage will see such things happen,
Only Ultraconservatives who believe marriage must be forever would deem that the estranged spouse would be responsible for the other debts years after separation and the courts have sorted out the break-up

Moz in Oz says:

Re: Re:

How would that work with kids, as Andie Fox has? Does the government split the benefits so each parent gets half? In which case, when they split the non-custodial parent keeps the benefit until they agree to give it up? If parents have to agree on who gets the tax benefit you’re back to Ms Fox’s problem – her (ex) partner wasn’t doing his taxes.

Australia already has very limited tax benefits to couples without kids – the family health insurance subsidy is about the end of it.

There’s no really easy solution to these problems, that’s why they keep coming up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You might want to check out the wikipedia page on Rights and responsibilities of marriages for just why the government gets involved in recognising marriages. For one thing, even if the government didn’t pay any attention to marriage status, contract law would still exist, so people could still make contracts covering the same issues, and then any dispute would be handled by the courts, and oh look, the government just got involved in marriage again.

Akihabara says:

What Centrelink did releasing someones private details sounds really dodgy and illegal from my understanding of Australian privacy law (other than very limited circumstances when the person is deceased) – spoken as an Australian with a fairly extensive bureaucratic experience. I can’t recall another government department ever doing this on the record. My suspicion would be it’s been a political direction from a Ministers office who has already received a serious bollocking over a rubbish robo-debt recovery system. Disgraceful decision whomever made it.

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