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Wednesday, 27 May 1987
Page: 3385

Mr PORTER(11.32) —I want to refer the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) to clause 9, the secrecy provisions of the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Bill. I have no idea why the Government is determined to gag this legislation through the House. This is very wide-ranging legislation. Concerns have been expressed about the real intent of the Government as evidenced in this legislation, especially the future intent of this Government in relation to the extension of the means testing of family allowances and the fact that this Bill is the thin end of the wedge. The Minister virtually confirmed that in his contribution during the Committee stage of this debate and then, of course, the Government sought to gag the legislation through.

The point that I want to bring to the attention of the Minister at this time and of the House relates to clause 9 and the secrecy provisions. This clause amends sub-section 17 (4) of the principal Act. The current sub-section 17 (4) of the principal Act enables the disclosure of information otherwise prevented by the secrecy provisions in sub-sections 17 (2) and 17 (3). Clause 9 substitutes a new sub-section 17 (4) which replaces paragraphs 17 (4) (a) and 17 (4) (c) and extends 17 (4) (b). Currently paragraph 17 (4) (b) permits the disclosure of information only to a prescribed authority or person. Section 17 of the Act states:

(4) Notwithstanding anything contained in the preceding provisions of this section, an officer may-

(b) divulge any such information to any prescribed authority or person;

That is a fairly limited ability to disclose information. The proposed new sub-paragraph 17 (4) (b) would permit disclosure of information to the secretary of a Commonwealth department or head of a Commonwealth authority for the purposes of that department or authority. The explanatory memorandum states:

In practice, these other agencies would be agencies such as the Australian Taxation Office which have secrecy provisions preventing the further dissemination of the information. This provision of information is required to avoid misuse of the pension and benefits system and improve recovery of Commonwealth debts.

Clause 9 of this Bill therefore allows, at the discretion of the secretary of a department, the dissemination of personal and confidential information to any Commonwealth department or authority. I refer the Minister to the report on privacy by the Law Reform Commission, and the point that the report made regarding the establishment of a national databank on private information. The concern that the Opposition has is that this amendment could lead to the establishment of such a databank. The Opposition appreciates the need for governments to have adequate power to pursue welfare fraud. But it is always a question of balance. The Government has been silent on the provisions in this amendment, apart from the comments in the explanatory memorandum. I therefore seek an undertaking from the Minister that this power will be strictly limited to the pursuit of welfare fraud and will not be used for the establishment of a databank. The Opposition is concerned about any further trespass by government on individual rights and liberties. We await the Minister's response to the questions that I have raised. Pending his response, we may seek to take further action in the Senate in relation to this clause.