On Thursday, in the midst of public outrage at Human Services Minister Alan Tudge’s doxxing of a Centrelink user, legislation allowing the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to give private information to the media passed through the lower house with bipartisan support, and almost unnoticed.
The power to legally release a citizen’s private information to the media is argued by politicians as necessary, in order for agencies to respond to people they believe are deliberately misleading the public and in so doing, undermining the public’s confidence in that agency.
Look. I could write an entire post on the irony of citizens undermining confidence in agencies. Think robo-debt for a start. It’s my “belief” that there’s no citizen alive capable of inflicting as much damage on government agencies as they inflict upon themselves, all too often exacerbated by the minister supposed to lead them. Nobody could undermine public confidence in Centrelink better than Hank Jongen and Alan Tudge.
The significant words in the justification for this legislation are they believe. Government agencies and ministers do not have to prove you are deliberately misleading the public and undermining an agency. They simply have to believe you are in order to legally release your private data.
Of course you can fight them after the fact. You can take them to court to make them prove their belief. But by then you’re all over the media, you’re traumatised, and it’s too late. Governments have deep pockets, and you most likely do not.
You have also compulsorily supplied agencies with the very information they now intend to use against you, because they believe your complaints, impressions, and opinions undermine them.
I’ve carefully re-read the article by Andie Fox that caused Alan Tudge to release her data to Fairfax because he “believed” her commentary undermined public confidence in Centrelink.
Ms Fox wrote an opinion piece. It consists almost entirely of how she felt during her encounters with Centrelink. The only points of dispute Tudge could find are a couple of dates, and numbers of phone calls.
According to Alan Tudge, this is sufficient to undermine public confidence in Centrelink, and justifies his release of her private data to Fairfax. Clearly, this is an absolutely ridiculous claim on Tudge’s part, and an abhorrent abuse of his power.
In fact, the power of Ms Fox’s piece is not in a Tudge-like gotcha game with the agency, but rather in her subjective experience of engaging with Centrelink, one with which thousands and thousands of other users can identify.
What Tudge’s reaction demonstrates is that we absolutely cannot trust ministers and senior public servants to exercise good judgement in their use of this legislation.
It demonstrates that citizens must not tolerate legislation that is so open to abuse by ministers and senior public servants, legislation that is based solely on the grounds of their beliefs.
Politicians need to fully explain why they need such legislation in the first place, and in the second, why they feel the need to extend it to include veterans. It wouldn’t have anything to do with military personnel speaking out about the ADF’s stance on the effects of anti-malarial drug Mefloquine, would it?
No senior public servant and no minister should have the power to publicly release a citizen’s private data simply because he or she believes there may be an adverse outcome for an agency. This is an attempt by politicians to silence all dissent by instilling a terror of possible consequences.
Supplying private data to these agencies is compulsory. Politicians are demanding that in handing over our private data, we also agree to their release of it to media should they believe any public commentary we make might adversely affect their interests.
This is an untenable situation for citizens, and a massive over-reach on the part of politicians.
Postscript: Acting Senate Clerk Richard Pye has acknowledged that Tudge’s release of private data may have a “chilling effect” on witnesses at next week’s inquiry into Centrelink Robo-Debt.
Mr Pye has warned that any attempts at interference with witnesses will be considered to be contempt.
We have a government that has to be warned not to interfere with witnesses in a Senate inquiry. Think about that.