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'Reasonably clear' Alan Tudge's office broke law in Centrelink case, says Labor legal advice

3 April 2017
Christopher Knaus
Guardian

Labor-commissioned legal advice says it is “reasonably clear” that the government committed a criminal offence when it released the personal details of welfare recipient Andie Fox. 

The opposition recently engaged one of Australia’s leading criminal barristers, Robert Richter, QC, to consider the release of Fox’s protected information by the office of human services minister, Alan Tudge, in February. 

Fox had been publicly critical of Centrelink and its handling of her welfare debt, and the release of her information was done to counter her claims.

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“It is reasonably clear that the minister or one of his office’s staff has committed an offence,” Richter wrote. 

“The disclosure of Fox’s information would be punishable by up to two years imprisonment if proven in court.”

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But Tudge has rejected the advice, saying Richter provided it without full knowledge of the circumstances of the case. He said he received advice that Fox’s material could be released from the department’s chief legal counsel, who had intimate knowledge of the circumstances and relevant law. 

“The hypocrisy of Labor is once again on show – they’ve spent the past two months parading the private details of people with Centrelink debts in the media, even though they admit that they didn’t know if their information was true,” Tudge said. 

“Labor would like to be able to spread lies about government agencies and give no opportunity for the government to correct the record,” he said. 

The Australian federal police are still considering whether to investigate the government’s release of Fox’s protected information.

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Labor’s Linda Burney released Richter’s advice on Monday.

“This advice is damning. The prime minister needs to seriously consider whether minister Tudge can remain in his position,” Burney said. 

“It appears his position has become increasingly untenable,” she said. 

The minister’s office and the department of human services both sent Malone an email containing limited detail on Fox and her personal history. Tudge’s office also attached two PDFs, which were marked “for official use only” and contained some additional detail on Fox’s personal tax and relationship circumstances. 

No mention was made of those two PDFs when the government was questioned about the release at senate estimates last month. The government says the contents of the PDFs had been cleared for public release and that there had simply been a mistake in attaching them in that format. 

Richter is a well-known criminal barrister based in Melbourne. He successfully defended Mick Gatto on a murder charge, and represented Hoddle Street killer, Julian Knight. His advice is set out in a five-page document, also signed by lawyer Matthew Albert.