We need to talk about Centrelink.
We’ve known for months that something is very wrong at the sprawling government payments agency. From the middle of last year, Centrelink has been monstering ordinary Australians with automated “robo-debt” notices, often generated in error.
Tens of thousands of Centrelink recipients have been issued with erroneous debt notices for debts they don’t owe. The misery has been extraordinary. MPs have been besieged with desperate constituents trying to fight the robo-debts, despite official indifference. At least one person with health issues pursued by the agency has committed suicide.
The government maintains that the system is working.
You would think it couldn’t get any worse. But yesterday we found out that it could get worse. That’s when the Department of Human Services calmly admitted that it had released private details of a Centrelink recipient who had written about her debt problems.
Economist and blogger Andie Fox is a thoughtful and respected commentator on social affairs, particularly the intersection of work, feminism and motherhood. So when she penned a nuanced and measured account of her Centrelink troubles for Fairfax Media, people read it.
Fox’s article was moderate, restrained and careful. She didn’t make wild accusations and was at pains to praise the Centrelink staff that had helped her. She pointed out that contesting a Centrelink debt was both difficult and stressful. As we know, in her first debt matter, Centrelink eventually ruled in her favour. The second is still ongoing, as she explicitly indicated at the end of her article.
Fox’s article was shared widely on social media and referred to on the ABC’s Q&A. That is where it came to the attention of freelance journalist Paul Malone, who writes a weekly column for the Canberra Times.
Malone decided to look into Fox’s case, and wrote to both her and Centrelink about it. And that is where things got interesting.
In response to Malone’s enquiries, Centrelink and the responsible minister, Alan Tudge, decided to brief Paul Malone on Andie Fox’s case.
A more accurate term would be “briefed against” her. All sorts of personal information from Fox’s case file were disclosed to Malone, who duly wrote them up in a lukewarm “gotcha” piece in the Canberra Timesarticle on 26 February. “Could it be that sometimes the agency is being unfairly castigated?” he asked.
What followed was a regurgitation of Centrelink media spin, attributed to Centrelink PR supremo Hank Jongen.
But the far more important issue is what this article tells us about the state of privacy regulation in Australia, and the politicisation of the Australian Public Service.
Make no mistake: this was a deliberate act by Centrelink’s spin room, led by Hank Jongen, and okayed by top Department of Human Services brass and eventually Minister Alan Tudge himself.
Tudge even tweeted out a link.
How do we know the privacy disclosure was deliberate? The government has told us.
The Department of Human Services told New Matilda that Andie Fox’s case file was indeed briefed to Paul Malone without her knowledge or consent. Moreover, they told us, this was all perfectly legal.
“Personal information obtained about a welfare recipient may be used by the department for social security law or family assistance law purposes,” a spokesperson for the Department told New Matilda, and referred us to Section 202 of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and Section 162 of the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Administration Act 1999).
“This allows the department to correct the record in cases where a person makes a public statement or complaint about the department’s handling of their welfare payments that does not accord with our records, including via the media.”
Moreover, the Department issued a warning to anyone thinking of discussing their Centrelink issues in the press.
“Unfounded allegations unnecessarily undermine confidence and takes staff effort away from dealing with other claims,” the spokesperson continued. “We will continue to correct the record on such occasions.”
In Parliament today, Minister Tudge confirmed this. He went on to criticise Labor parliamentarians for encouraging Centrelink clients with robo-debt notices to take their story to the media.
The episode is sobering for those worried about the amount of data the government collects about private citizens, and the safeguards against government abuse of that data.
The issue is hardly trivial: the Attorney-General’s Department and the government’s intelligence agencies collect vast troves of information from essentially every Australian citizen, through compulsory metadata retention and other forms of official surveillance.
Indeed, serious questions have been raised about whether the disclosure was even legal.
According to La Trobe University legal scholar Darren O’Donovan, the legality of the privacy breach is very much open to question.
The aggressive tactics of the DHS spin room, led by Hank Jongen, are an open secret in Canberra. New Matilda has spoken to several sources with working knowledge of the DHS media operation, who have told us that that Jongen’s operation is openly politicised.
Ever since the robo-debt problems began to emerge last year, the DHS media unit has worked to triage cases reaching the media. Journalists asking about the robo-debt bungles were told to refer the Centrelink clients they were in touch with directly with Centrelink, with the aim of cleaning up the cases that reached the media before the broader scandal blew up.
Centrelink’s spinners have aggressively moved to cultivate journalists potentially friendly to their cause. According to sources within Centrelink, the DHS media team were delighted at convincing Malone to write the attack piece on Fox.
In conversation with New Matilda, Malone partly confirmed this. He remarked in a phone discussion that he had originally intended to write a negative piece about Centrelink, but turned the focus of his article around when informed of “the facts”. Malone continues to stand by his article, arguing that “everybody is entitled to a fair and honest account of their activities including government agencies”.
New Matilda approached Paul Malone asking him about the ethics of his article. He stands by it.
“People in government and the bureaucracy have a right to have their side of the story told too,” Malone wrote in an email. “Andie Fox raised her private case herself. She talked in her article about her personal situation, and made claims about her situation and that of her de facto. She can’t have it both ways – going public about her personal matters and then when Centrelink queries her version of events saying it’s a private matter”.
For her part, Fox points out that Malone initially contacted her about the more general issue of “Centrelink debt processes”, but that she “quickly became alarmed when he then abruptly quoted what I thought were confidential parts of my Centrelink file to me and admitted that the article was not in fact about Centrelink debt processes, but rather about my case specifically”.
Fox was in the Kafkaesque situation of talking to a journalist about her own private welfare file. He had details before him that she didn’t.
Fox told us Malone only gave her a few hours to respond to his questions. “He said I had only until overnight to comment before he would file his article…. He appeared naive in understanding the complexity and nuance of Centrelink interactions and processes”. She decided not to tell Malone anything further. Malone went ahead and submitted the piece. He did not point out that Fox had declined to comment for his article.
Whatever the details of his slapdash report, Malone’s attack piece raises all sorts of questions about the state of our civil liberties in 2017.
Are private citizens criticising the government now fair game for official doxxing? Is any mention of a government action in the media enough to justify the disclosure of damaging private information?
And what about the journalistic ethics here? What was the public interest in Fairfax disclosing a private citizen’s welfare details in this way?
As Fairfax’s own code of conduct points out, “We will strike a balance between the right of the public to information and the right of individuals to privacy”. It’s certainly worth questioning whether that balance has been struck.