Centrelink releases personal details

Centrelink has released a welfare recipient’s personal information in order to defend itself against public criticism.

Senior Government officials gave permission for Centrelink to release the details of the case after an article penned by Andie Fox, a blogger and Centrelink welfare recipient who believed she had been unfairly treated by the department, was published earlier this month.

Ms Fox wrote the article, published by Fairfax Media, to air her grievances over difficulties in dealing with the agency and receiving repeated calls from a debt collector for a debt she did not believe was hers. Her case was not part of the much-maligned robo-debt recovery program.

Over the weekend, she discovered that her personal details and claim history – some of which she says was incorrect – had been published in another Fairfax Media article titled Centrelink is an easy target for complaining but there are two sides to every story.

Her information was handed to Fairfax Media by Human Services Minister Alan Tudge. It was approved for release by a deputy secretary after the department’s legal counsel claimed that it was necessary to correct the public record.

A department spokesperson said that Centrelink is able to use personal information “for social security law or family assistance law purposes”.

“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,” she said.

“Unfounded allegations unnecessarily undermine confidence and takes staff effort away from dealing with other claims. We will continue to correct the record on such occasions.”

The department’s Secretary has discretionary power to release personal information “to such persons and for such purposes” as they see fit.

Ms Fox is questioning whether the release of this material is in breach of her privacy. She has lodged complaints with Centrelink and other departments about the breach.

Read more at The Guardian
Read the Australian Privacy Principles

Opinion: Don’t criticise the Government

This seems a gross breach of privacy and a Goliath versus David story, but just as digraceful is that a major news outlet has helped to pull the strings on this saga.

Ms Fox’s blog-styled article discussed her specific experience with Centrelink. She stated that she’d separated from her husband and, because he didn’t lodge a tax return, she’d copped a debt notice for Family Tax Benefits she’d received in that year. She explained how difficult it was for her just to get a straight answer about her debt, as well as how dealing with the great beast of bureaucracy made it almost impossible to resolve the situation.

The Fairfax article called into question the validity of Ms Fox’s assertions, and that her debt was due to her underestimating her family income for that year.

The agency claimed that it did try to contact Ms Fox and that she was remiss in not informing it of her situation in a timely manner. And a media adviser for Alan Tudge said that if she had called the 1800 number on her debt notice, her call would have been answered immediately.

Yeah, right. How many of you have had your Centrelink calls answered immediately? How many of you have had no problems resolving a Centrelink issue?

Whatever the case, the release of Ms Fox’s personal information is simply inexcusable. Okay, so Ms Fox exposed her frustrations with the agency to the media, but how many of you wish you could do the same?

If only everyone who did have a problem with Centrelink, the Government and its related bureaucratic measures would do the same. It seems the only way to get a resolution is to expose a problem to the media. It sure got Centrelink jumping to attention.

But maybe that attention could have been turned to solving Ms Fox’s problem, instead of exposing it to the public. Does Centrelink really think that this type of action will aid its cause? Surely resolving her issue would be better PR for the department.

I suppose the moral of the story is: don’t criticise the Government. You’ll only be virtually tarred and feathered for your trouble – which is what happened to Ms Fox. And to think, this situation may have been resolved had the same energy been put into helping Ms Fox, but instead, it is only that much worse.

Do you think this is a breach of privacy? Could Centrelink have diverted its attention to helping Ms Fox and making a case for looking after the people whom it’s supposed to assist? Is it deliberately ingenuous of Government officials to claim that Centrelink calls are immediately answered?

Related articles:
Centrelink blocks 60,000 calls a day
Centrelink to target age pensioners
Centrelink system flaws were known

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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