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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1336


Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:18): I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill 2017. Labor, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, is always supportive of measures that will ease the claims process for veterans when dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. As government agencies move closer to a wholly digital platform, it is appropriate to include measures that allow the Department of Veterans' Affairs to engage this platform. Sending the bill to committee assists the parliament to understand the circumstances for which this bill is necessary. Specifically, Labor sent the bill to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee to investigate schedule 2. Schedule 2 looks at what circumstances are necessary to allow the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs to make publicly available personal information of veterans and ex-service personnel. The concerns over provisions in schedule 2 of this bill were discussed during the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Legislation inquiry. To be clear, Labor will not support legislation which gives the department the power to disclose individual medical information, unless there is a threat to life, health or welfare.

We do not support the department using an individual's medical information to correct misinformation in the community and we have been working with the government on the rules which accompany this legislation. Labor also does not believe that if someone makes a genuine mistake about a claim in relation to the administration of the department that the department should respond in a public way. We believe that, if someone is genuinely mistaken, DVA should seek to resolve this matter with them directly and not in the public arena. When it comes to the release of personal information, Labor supports strict rules and enforceable penalties if these rules are breached.

I would like to talk about the Centrelink debt-automation issue. Significant concerns have been raised in light of the issues with Centrelink and the release of personal information by Minister Tudge. In relation to the debt-automation process, the department has assured us that the automation program will not be used in relation to debts. In terms of Minister Tudge and the rules that DHS have in relation to the release of personal information, Labor believes that Minister Tudge unethically leaked personal information as opposed to following his own department's rules. The public interest disclosure, or the rules which accompany the digital readiness legislation, were originally based on the Social Security Act. They have since been worked on tirelessly by Labor to ensure they are far tighter than the version the government first proposed. Due to Labor's intervention, we have been able to strengthen the rules with regard to medical information and the correcting of misinformation and mistake of fact. Labor has worked to ensure these rules are stronger than they were. Work on the rules is still continuing.

The rules are a disallowable instrument, and Labor has been clear that, if we are unhappy with the accompanying rules, we will move to disallow them. Should the rules be disallowed then the part of schedule 2 which would enable the release of information will not proceed. Schedule 2 includes important safeguards to ensure this power is exercised appropriately, including that the secretary must act in accordance with the rules and that the minister is unable to delegate the public interest disclosure power to anyone. Labor has sought to ensure the secretary must notify the person in writing about his or her intention to disclose the information and give the person a reasonable opportunity to make written comments on that disclosure. Finally, if, as the government has just indicated, these safeguards are not abided by, the secretary risks a fine of 60 penalty units, which equates to approximately $10,800.

Labor recognises that there are some circumstances outlined which we believe are appropriate for sharing personal information, especially in circumstances relating to health and wellbeing and with other federal and state agencies in circumstances relating to crime. It is important to recognise those veterans and ex-service personnel who engage the services of DVA do so knowing their information will be kept confidential.

Labor's shadow minister, Amanda Rishworth—and I have to say at this point what a terrific job she is doing in the role—will continue to negotiate the provisions of the rules to ensure these are in line with the expectations of the veterans and ex-service community.

Labor senators reported from the Senate inquiry that there are still serious concerns around the circumstances of mistakes of fact. They also mentioned misinformation in the community and questioned whether these provisions are necessary. Labor senators provided additional comments to the chair, recommending both misinformation and mistake of fact be removed from the rules.

The chair of the Senate inquiry made four significant recommendations. Recommendation No. 1 was that the Department of Veterans' Affairs consult with the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner on the content of the minister's regulations before they are finalised and introduced into the parliament. The second recommendation, which I am sure you would be familiar with, Acting Deputy President, was that the Department of Veterans' Affairs undertake a privacy impact assessment of the regulations and that the completed assessment be made public. The third recommendation was that the bill be amended to include a mandatory review of the implementation of the legislation and accompanying regulations two years from the commencement date. You will find that sort of proposal in a lot of legislation these days. Finally, in recommendation No. 4 the committee recommended that the bill be passed, so of course we are supporting the legislation.

By accepting these recommendations, the government will undertake consultation with the Commonwealth Ombudsman and Australian Information Commissioner on the content of the rules and provide further safeguards in the final instrument. Labor is comfortable with the consultation of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Information Commissioner to finalise that instrument. Labor will continue to work with the minister to ensure these recommendations are adhered to.

Labor has been working tirelessly to strengthen the Government's Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill 2017 since it was introduced into the parliament and will continue to do so with the accompanying rules.