The Australian Federal Police (AFP) will not investigate allegations that Federal Government Human Services Minister Alan Tudge unlawfully shared a welfare recipient’s private details with the media without her consent.
The Australian Labor Party asked the AFP to investigate whether Mr Tudge had broken the law back in March.
Last month, Robert Richter, a Queen’s Council and former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said it was “reasonably clear” that the law had been broken when the details of welfare recipient Andie Fox, who had been a vocal opponent of the way Centrelink was chasing her debt, were leaked.
“The Australian Federal Police will not be pursuing Labor’s allegations that I broke privacy law,” Mr Tudge said in a statement.
“The AFP made clear that the protected information released by my office (prepared by my Department) was approved for release and was therefore not an unauthorised disclosure.
“Social security law and family assistance law allow for the release of limited information to respond to incorrect or misleading information in the media about specific cases, in order to maintain public confidence in the integrity of government programs.”
Mr Tudge’s statement also alludes to a $321 million funding boost to the AFP, announced on the same day as part of the Government’s Budget.
“Labor’s referral was always a political stunt and part of its Centrelink scare campaign. While the Coalition is increasing resources to the AFP, the Labor Party is wasting them,” Mr Tudge said.
Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney says Labor has now asked the Privacy Information Commissioner to resume his investigation into Mr Tudge’s handling of private information.
“Frankly if the Minister thinks this is the end of his troubles he is mistaken. Lawful or not, Mr Tudge acted deeply unethically,” she said in a statement.
“Serious questions remain about Alan Tudge and his office’s handling of highly sensitive information and Labor will continue to push for answers. Labor will now ask the Information Commissioner to resume his investigation into Mr Tudge’s handling of private information and I look forward to that outcome.”
Now that the legality of the decision to release the details of a private welfare recipient appear to have been settled, we should now switch our attention on whether this is how we want the law to function in these cases.
There are cases where the release of personal information may be justified, but these need strict accountability rules. The current regulations that require the Secretary of the relevant department to issue a certificate for the formal release of information usually offers good privacy protection but, in this case, this protocol wasn’t followed.
The Secretary of the Department did not issue a certificate to release Ms Fox’s personal information, with Centrelink claiming it had the right to release information “for the purposes of the social security law”.
It seems a bit of a stretch that releasing the personal details of a welfare recipient to a journalist meets a purpose of social security law, but now that the AFP has dropped its investigation, that seems to be the case.
This has profound implications for how Centrelink can use personal information of all welfare recipients, as they no longer require formal mechanisms to release a person’s details to a news outlet.
Australia’s privacy laws do not offer a great deal of protection at the best of times, but we must make sure that any details released are formally documented and have some level of accountability.
Do Australians deserve better privacy protections? Should the law be changed to ensure personal details are better protected? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.