Australia’s human services minister, Alan Tudge, relied on legal guidelines in parliament to justify the release of personal information to the media that his own department now says are irrelevant.
Tudge was criticised in parliament on Tuesday for releasing the personal details of welfare recipient Andie Fox, who was critical of Centrelink’s handling of her debt. Lawyers and welfare groups have already warned that the decision to release Fox’s details was legally debatable.
Tudge sought to justify the release of Fox’s details by relying on a part of social security law that he said allows personal information to be disclosed to correct the public record.
But the powers he claims were used directly contradict his own department’s comments and only relate to disclosing information by the secretary to the minister.
Labor’s Linda Burney said Tudge’s justification for the release of Fox’s details was “confused at best” and said that the controversial decision would be pursued again during Senate estimates on Thursday.
“The minister is arguing that his actions were legal; the fact is they certainly weren’t ethical,” she said. “Yesterday I moved to suspend the parliament so that Mr Tudge could explain himself. Now it looks like his explanation to the house was confused at best. Mr Tudge has to come clean.”
Tudge told parliament on Tuesday that he and the agency he oversees were entitled to release Fox’s information.
But Tudge was mistakenly quoting from legal guidelines that are only relevant if the Department of Human Services secretary formally authorises the release of personal information by issuing a public interest certificate. This would have required the secretary to take into account a range of factors and provide a written authorisation before releasing Fox’s information.
Tudge’s own department has already said it did not issue such a certificate and released the information under another law. “They do not need to be formally authorised by the secretary,” a spokeswoman said on Monday.
The section of the guidelines Tudge was quoting from also only authorised the release of personal information from the secretary directly to the minister; not the public or media.
Legal experts have expressed surprise at the decision to release Fox’s information, describing it as against past practice.
Legal Aid Victoria has also raised serious concern about the release, and said there were real doubts about the way the law had been interpreted.
It has begun advising individuals that speaking out about their Centrelink debts means their personal details may be released.
Civil justice executive director, Dan Nicholson, described it as an “unsatisfactory” situation. Nicholson called for the department to set out exactly what powers it had used to release the information.
He said the disclosure of protected information was typically considered criminal, and could be punished by up to two years imprisonment.
“In this case the government relies on an exception to the offence that allows disclosures because they are ‘for the purposes of social security law’ – specifically because, they claim, ‘unfounded allegations necessarily undermine confidence and takes staff effort away from the dealing with other claims’,” Nicholson said.
“This is an extraordinarily broad interpretation of this exception. We can’t find any decided cases that support it, and we think there are real doubts about this interpretation of the law,” he said.
“It seems that Centrelink is attempting to get around important safeguards in the Act by releasing the information in the way they have.”
Australian National University academic and social security lawyer, Peter Sutherland, said the disclosure was unusual, and said its legality could only be properly tested in court.
The Australian Association of Social Workers described it as an “abuse of power and not the way to engage with vulnerable people”.
Association president, Karen Healy, said pursuing budget savings through “policies of fear and intimidation” would only further entrench people in poverty.