Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has been referred to the Australian Federal Police over the disclosure of a welfare recipient’s personal information to a journalist.
Labor MP Linda Burney, who asked the AFP on Thursday to investigate whether Mr Tudge broke the law in approving the release of details, said she did not take the action lightly, tweeting “we deserve answers”.
The referral comes on the same day the Department of Human Services (DHS) defended the decision to disclose a single mother’s personal information to the media, saying it was needed to allay the fears of other welfare recipients.
The release has been criticised by the federal opposition and lawyers who believe it may have a disturbing impact on welfare recipients who would otherwise criticise the government.
Blogger Andie Fox, who wrote in Fairfax Media that the agency “terrorised” her over an ex-partner’s debt, has made a formal complaint to the department, saying some of the information that was released and published about her was incorrect.
A few weeks later, her personal details were supplied to a journalist who wrote a comment piece from the government’s perspective, raising the prospect that Centrelink had been “unfairly castigated”.
Public servants have told a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra the “protected” information was collated by DHS officials and approved for release by Mr Tudge’s office.
The department sought legal advice before releasing the information but did not obtain a public interest certificate, with officials claiming they did not need to.
Mr Tudge and his department claimed the disclosure was legal according to section 202 of the Social Security Act 1999 and section 162 of the A New Tax System Family Administration Act 1999.
Legal experts have questioned the department’s interpretation of the law and the Privacy Commissioner has confirmed he has asked the department for an explanation.
Ms Burney said the actions of Mr Tudge were reckless and immoral at best, and illegal at worst.
“What was revealed today in Senate Estimates was shocking,” she said.
“The private information of an individual who went to a government instrumentality appears to have been provided to a media outlet without her permission.
“If this is the case, then how can we can we trust this government to look after anyone’s private information?”
Speaking on Sky News, Ms Burney said it was either for the “good of Social Security … or political vindictiveness” that motivated Mr Tudge to approve the release of the personal details.
“But he cannot contradict himself and he cannot, as a very senior and responsible public figure and a minister of an agency that has enormous amounts of private information about all of us, be potentially releasing that private information to the media without proper authorisation and for not the right reasons,” she said.
It is common for politicians to refer matters to the federal police and doing so does not automatically trigger an investigation.
In her letter to police commissioner Andrew Colvin, Ms Burney said legal experts claimed a reliance on section 202 was “not available” and contrary to “a proper reading of the ACT and decades of established department practice”.