Those who publicly criticise Centrelink’s automated debt recovery program could have their personal information released to correct the record, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has warned.
Blogger Andie Fox wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media earlier this month claiming Centrelink “terrorised” her while chasing her for a debt she believed she did not owe.
On the weekend, Fairfax published an article from the Government’s perspective, raising the prospect of Centrelink being “unfairly castigated”.
In the article a spokesman for Centrelink commented on Ms Fox’s personal information including her history of claiming the Family Tax Benefit and relationship circumstances.
A DHS spokesman said personal information could be released by the Government to correct public statements of complaints.
“Such disclosures are made for the purposes of the social security law or the family assistance law, they do not need to be formally authorised by the secretary,” the spokesman said.
“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.”
Labor’s Linda Burney accused DHS of “deeply unethical actions” and the Government of seeking “revenge”.
“The disclosure has occurred deliberately to smear a private individual who has spoken out about the error prone robo-debt program and the deeply flawed Centrelink debt recovery process,” she said.
“Correcting the record is one thing, attempting to smear and discredit opponents is entirely different and far more troubling.”
Greens senator Rachel Siewart said the disclosure was “extremely concerning” and appeared to be an attack on Ms Fox, “who was brave enough to speak about her struggle with the government agency”.
“If it transpires that the department did in fact leak personal details to a journalist to argue in favour of the broken Centrelink system this raises some serious questions,” she said
“It also says a lot that the department would rather attack the messenger than address the serious issues raised.”
Senator Siewart said she would raise the issue with officials from the DHS during estimates hearings on Thursday.
Decision to brief journalist ‘sick’, Ludlam says
Ms Fox has described the events as incredibly disturbing.
“Given the way in which this has unfolded and the subsequent article, it is difficult to come away thinking the intention was for a productive engagement with the issues I’d raised,” she said.
“I was very frank with Centrelink about certain details of my life as part of the process we went through to resolve the problems, and now I have no idea who has what of my file.”
Ms Fox told the ABC she had lodged a complaint with Centrelink about the agency’s involvement in the second article.
“I have not heard anything since, but am told I may never learn the outcome,” she said.
The Fairfax Media story was shared by DHS Minister Alan Tudge on social media shortly after it was published.
Greens senator Scott Ludlam said the decision to brief journalists on her personal circumstances was “sick”.
“Whoever authorised this hostile drop deserves to spend some time in the Centrelink queue themselves,” he said on Twitter.