Estimates can often be boring, as senators plough their way through the progress of this or that infrastructure program or service delivery roll-out. But every so often, it produces gripping scenes.
That was the case yesterday in the Senate’s Community Affairs committee, where the Secretary of the Department of Human Services, Kathryn Campbell, was called upon to give evidence.
Brigadier Campbell makes no secret of the influence her military career has on her duties as a public servant. “I’ve found it very useful in my public service career to have that leadership and command training that the military provides, to always see people as a key determinant of achieving objectives,’’ she told The Australian’s Brendan Nicholson in August last year.
“To provide leadership to the department, I think the skills I learned in the military have been incredibly important,” she added.
Campbell’s military demeanour and leadership skills were very much on display at Senate Estimates yesterday – though perhaps not in the way that she might have imagined in her friendly interview with The Australian.
That’s because Campbell is now at the centre of one of the most serious scandals in the Australian Public Service since the notorious “children overboard” testimony of Jane Halton in the early 2000s.
As Secretary of the Department that oversees Centrelink, Campbell is the top bureaucrat in charge of a government agency in crisis. Centrelink has gone rogue, destroying lives and ruining reputations. The controversy may do more than damage careers: it may land Campbell and her Minister, Liberal MP Alan Tudge, in deep legal trouble.
Campbell’s performance in Estimates yesterday was calm and controlled. But the things that she said were astonishing. In measured terms, she described an official program of social media surveillance, in which Centrelink monitors social media for critics, and sends private information about those critics to the Minister’s office.
Campbell also described an interpretation of social security law so broad that it effectively adds up to a license for the Department to disclose information against any citizen criticising government policy.
Amongst the things we learned from Campbell’s explosive Estimates testimony yesterday were:
- the Department of Human Services monitors mainstream and social media for criticism, and sends private information about the welfare files of critics to the Minister’s office.
- In response to enquiries from Fairfax journalist Paul Malone, the Minister and the Department pulled Andie Fox’s file and prepared information for release without her consent.
- the Department believes that releasing private information about a critic is justified in order to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the social security system.
- despite this, Centrelink keeps no aggregate figures on the number of mistakes it makes, and cannot provide data on the percentage of robo-debt notices that is sending in error.
- the Department believes it can disclose private data on individuals from other government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office.
- the Department is relying on an interpretation of social security law that is so broad that it effectively means any public critic of welfare policy could have their private information disclosed.
Campbell’s reading of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 is particularly relevant. If adopted across the rest of government, it would appear to amount to a blank cheque to release data against almost anyone speaking publicly about government policy.
The legalities of the matter are complex, but it boils down to a sweeping new interpretation of the Social Security (Administration) Act. Secretary Campbell could have sought a so-called “public interest certificate”, the normal way the Department would legally release private information. But she didn’t do so.
Instead the Department relied on a different section of the law, section 202, and a tortuous interpretation that claims that releasing data is permissible in order to “to maintain public confidence in the administration of the law”.
According to La Trobe University legal scholar Darren O’Donovan, this amounts to broad new powers with huge implications for privacy. “If they were permitted to use it [in]that manner it would have very broad consequences for Australian privacy protection,” he told us in an email.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Campbell’s Estimates testimony yesterday was her insistence that releasing the data about Fox was necessary to maintain public confidence in Centrelink.
For anyone caught in the tentacles of Centrelink’s robo-debt disaster, that remark will seem like a bad joke.
As lawyers and civil liberties advocates have pointed out, the deliberate disclosure of private data will most likely have the very opposite effect.
Minutes later, Campbell told the Greens’ Rachel Siewert that she couldn’t provide any data on the number of errors Centrelink had made in its debt notices. Centrelink’s IT systems didn’t collect that data, she admitted. After Siewert pressed, Campbell admitted that perhaps the Department could look at “a sample” of cases, to see what percentage were in error.
If Campbell is worried about the “integrity of the system” and public confidence in it, perhaps finding out how many mistakes Centrelink is making would be a good place to start.