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Centrelink office

Having gone after MPs, whistleblowers and journalists using private information, the Turnbull government has reached a new low that is simultaneously a logical extension of its abuse of power: using private information to attack a member of the public who had the temerity to criticise the government. Moreover, the bureaucrats involved actually boasted about it and warned that others would receive the same treatment.

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. The Department of Human Services hit back, disclosing much of her personal information to The Canberra Times. The targeting of Fox by the Department of Human Services and Human Services Minister Alan Tudge was not merely an extraordinary breach of privacy purely for political ends, it was intended as a warning to any Centrelink client who might think about publicly criticising the agency. Justifying the breaching of Fox’s privacy, Human Services accused Fox of lying, and warned “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.”

That’s a particularly obnoxious mix of bureaucratese and officious sanctimony of the kind you’d normally expect to hear from a Beijing state media outlet rather than the Australian public service. To idly toss off a reference (wholly incorrect, as Fox has shown) to “unfounded allegations” and then complain of “confidence” being undermined — whose confidence? That of Centrelink staff? The public’s? Because no Australian can now have any confidence that, should there be a perceived political need, this government won’t use their private information.

[Stealing your eyeballs: Dutton’s stealthy plan to track you]

Nor should any whistleblower have any confidence that the Canberra Times can be trusted, given its participation in the assault on a citizen’s privacy. 

There’s a pattern here — of a government that wants ever more access to its citizens’ information, and that ever more aggressively uses that information for political ends. The government’s mass surveillance scheme is now in place — although it has no idea where, or how securely, our biggest telecommunications providers are storing our metadata under its data retention regime; it is currently conducting an inquiry into allowing private companies and individuals to get access to metadata; the Australian Bureau of Statistics converted the census into a lifelong monitoring mechanism that would permanently compile individual information from across government, including agencies like Centrelink, for the equivalent of richly textured personal files on every citizen; the Australian Border Force has repeatedly tried to obtain Australians’ biometric data; a national facial recognition system has been established.

At the same time we’ve seen repeated sooling of the Australian Federal Police onto journalists and even opposition MPs and staffers, including attempting to collect email traffic between parliamentary staff and journalists. Witness K, who revealed the Australian Security Intelligence Service’s illegal bugging of the East Timorese cabinet, has been harassed and prevented from leaving Australia and his lawyer threatened with prosecution. And now the institutional apparatus of government, armed with personal information, has been turned on a citizen who did nothing more than exercise her basic right to criticise the government for hounding her over a non-existent debt.

[Data breach illustrates danger of mass surveillance]

Peculiarly, the normally voluble poseurs of free speech on the right of politics — the Leyonhjelms, the Bernardis, the One Nationers — have had nothing to say. Nor has that doughty defender of free speech, The Australian, unleashed a barrage of articles aimed at the presumptuous bureaucrats and their minister who used the power of government to attack a critic.

It’s one thing to target a Labor shadow minister and his staff, or to go after journalists working for big media companies like News Corp and Fairfax. They have institutional support, they can deploy lawyers, they have bully pulpits to hit back at the depredations of the AFP. But a member of the public has little support in the face of a vengeful government that has her most private information. You can be publicly called a liar and have your most personal details exploited for political purposes without any recourse.

What next from this outfit? Leaking Medicare data to attack critics of its health policies? It’s already sought to use asylum seekers’ medical data against them. Handing tax data to a friendly media outlet for a hatchet job on a business criticising policy? Governments have access to vast troves of data on all of us, and this one has now demonstrated it is prepared to use it to punish critics — and to send a signal to anyone else contemplating going public.

It’s beyond the pale and — to use a dreaded cliche that’s wholly apt — unAustralian. A signal needs to be sent that this is unacceptable. That means that Tudge, and the Human Services bureaucrats who approved this tawdry exercise, are sacked. Only that will demonstrate good faith and a renewed commitment to protecting privacy.

Otherwise — and of course it will be otherwise — we’ve all been given the clearest of signals: no arm of this government can not be trusted with your personal information.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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