From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Think of poor Centrelink. The stories of Australians targeted by Centrelink with dodgy debt notices haven’t abated, and the experiences show that the government’s assurances of fixes in the system haven’t led to a more efficient or humane system. Blogger Andie Fox wrote a comment piece for the Fairfax papers on February 6, outlining her experience with Centrelink: her ex-partner hadn’t lodged tax returns, which meant Centrelink’s automatic data matching system tallied up a debt in Fox’s name for Family Tax Benefit she had claimed. Fox mentioned that privacy laws had hampered her ability to prove her relationship was over and that her ex-partner’s actions shouldn’t impinge on her. Yesterday, The Canberra Times published a piece by columnist Paul Malone with the headline “Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story“. The supposed second side of Fox’s story was explained by Malone:

“But Centrelink has a different story.

The agency says Ms Fox’s debt is a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt for the 2011-12 financial year which arose after she received more FTB than she was entitled to because she under-estimated her family income for that year.

The original debt was raised because she and her ex-partner did not lodge a tax return or confirm their income information for 2011-12.

Centrelink says that after Ms Fox notified the department that she had separated from her partner, the debt due to her partner’s non-lodgement was cancelled.”

He also includes the number of letters and phone calls Centrelink says it made to Fox. As many journalists would know, asking any government agency about a particular person’s issue usually comes up with the response “we don’t comment on individual matters”, but in this case the Department of Human Services thought it was totally appropriate to reveal information Fox hadn’t in her original comment. In a blog post titled “Is this what happens when you criticise government?” Fox wrote:

“Paul Malone, a journalist for Canberra Times, has since obtained personal information from my Centrelink file (I’m still not entirely sure how privacy legislation allows this) in order to write an article about my story from the government’s perspective.” 

“It seems the story most neglected is not the helpless ‘client’ of Centrelink, so often powerless in the face of an enormous bureaucratic machine, but the Centrelink machine, itself.”

Fox also noted that Centrelink didn’t have the correct contact details for her — something she had worked out with the agency. We’ve contacted Fox to ask if she will be taking the matter further with DHS and were told that a complaint has been made, and an investigation launched.

In shock twist, Attorney-General’s Dept most slack. It’s the first day of Senate estimates hearings for the year, with politics nerds already getting a treat with the stoush between Parliament House cafe Aussies and the Department of Parliamentary Services getting the week off to a great start. But even though we’re starting a new round of hearings, questions taken on notice from last time are not all tied up. Figures complied by Labor Senator Penny Wong’s office show which department has the most outstanding questions left unanswered — it’s the Attorney General’s Department, with 16 unanswered questions from hearings held in May 2016 and 29 from hearings held in October 2016. Other departments with outstanding questions from October are Health, Human Services, Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Defence — but none have as many as AG’s. Out of 79 questions left unanswered, 45 are from the one department: Attorney General’s. We hope George Brandis doesn’t bring a book of poetry this week.

We don’t give a damn about our bad reputation. Last week we published an email written by Senator Eric Abetz to a constituent about the government’s inability to give any certainty on whether data stored under Australia’s data retention regime would be kept in Australia or stored offshore. Abetz’s answer was vague and said that companies needed “flexibility” when it came to where data was stored. Our tipster tells us Abetz was not so happy about seeing his email in Crikey, which he labelled a leak to a “disreputable news outlet”. What a recommendation.

Real Housewives of Parliament House. Real Housewives of Sydney showed off everything that is terrible about Australia’s largest city in its debut episode on Foxtel on Sunday night, but one character to watch will be Lisa Oldfield, the wife of former One Nation staffer and media personality David Oldfield. The other housewives were all keen to know: did he sleep with Pauline Hanson? Lisa said if it had happened, it was before Lisa and David were married, and he could have slept with “Dutch sailors” back then for all she cared.

Oldfield also revealed she was a keen gun owner and said she would use a firearm if there were any intruder trying to invade her home. Ms Tips hopes Oldfield is storing her firearm in compliance with NSW laws, which prescribe that firearms must be kept in a safe, separate from the ammunition.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to [email protected] or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Peter Fray

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