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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House, Melbourne: 23 August 2006: Centrelink privacy breaches.

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Kelvin Thomson MP

Shadow Minister for Public Accountability Shadow Minister for Human Services

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Transcript of doorstop interview - Parliament House, Melbourne, Wednesday, 23 August 2006

SUBJECT: Centrelink Privacy Breaches

THOMSON: It is absolutely unacceptable for almost 600 Centrelink staff to have accessed the records of customers without proper authorisation or cause. Minister Hockey must respond by calling in the Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, to investigate.

Today’s revelations come on top of news back in June that over 400 breaches of privacy had occurred in relation to the Child Support Agency. In two of those cases, mothers and their children had to be relocated as a result of the privacy breaches.

So in the past couple of months we’ve got serious privacy breaches in both Child Support Agency and Centrelink. These breaches show that Minister Hockey has not got his eye on the ball when it comes to the administration of his department and we need the Privacy Commission to step in and sort out this mess.

Australians have been providing this kind of sensitive, personal information to the Government in good faith. They take the Government on trust, they expect that the information they provide will be used to assist them, not used to hurt them. So these revelations are a source of great concern.

They also cast doubt on the Government’s Smartcard project. The Smartcard or Access Card is going to hold sensitive personal information for some 18 million Australians, including biometric photographs and signatures.

Australians cannot be expected to support the Smartcard project, unless and until the Government satisfies their legitimate privacy concerns. So far the Government has failed to deal with the privacy concerns. It has failed to release the Smartcard Impact Assessment Report. I am today writing to Professor Allan Fels, asking him to

investigate today’s revelations and to ensure that these new privacy concerns are being addressed and responded to.

This is a Government which is obsessive about privacy when it comes to protecting its Ministers from the Kids Overboard or AWB scandals, but which is way too relaxed and comfortable when it comes to protecting the privacy of ordinary


JOURNALIST: If the same privacy breaches occurred that are happening to Centrelink in its Smartcard context, how much more serious would the implications be, do you think, Australia wide?

THOMSON: The implications of privacy breaches with Smartcard would be very serious. Centrelink is today saying that only two percent of its staff were involved. But if you had privacy breaches in relation to two percent on Smartcard records, that could prove absolutely catastrophic. Indeed the whole premise of Smartcard is that they’ll be able to produce a two percent improvement in catching up with welfare fraud. So two percent is a very large number, it’s a matter of very serious

concern and the Smartcard project cannot proceed until the Government addresses these concerns.

JOURNALIST: Should the Government take the opportunity to do a wide spread Public Service improvement on these sorts of privacy issues?

THOMSON: What I’m calling for today is for the Privacy Commissioner to investigate each of the agencies in Joe Hockey’s portfolio. They are the big service delivery agencies: Centrelink, Child Support Agency and Medicare. They’re the ones where most Australians are providing personal information in good faith and I think the Privacy Commissioner needs to investigate those agencies.

JOURNALIST: How many have been sacked now?

THOMSON: The number been dismissed is close to 20 and a further 100 have resigned under threat of dismissal once these issues were raised with them. There is a total of nearly 600 staff who’ve been implicated in accessing the records of friends, neighbours, former lovers, inappropriately, without proper cause.

JOURNALIST: So they’re under investigation now are they? Do you know what is going to happen to them now?

THOMSON: Centrelink has apparently engaged in a range of penalties concerning those staff. My impression is that it doesn’t intend to sack further staff, but that 20 or so have been issued with dismissal notices and something like 100 have taken the opportunity to resign.

JOURNALIST: How would you feel if you were giving your information to Centrelink and you suspect that it might have been abused in this way. How do you reckon they would be feeling about that?

THOMSON: Australians are entitled to be very upset and distressed at the idea that staff may be accessing their records improperly. Many Australians depend on the Government to provide them with financial and other assistance. And they provide a lot of detailed personal information to the Government in good faith. Australians don’t like to see the welfare system rorted and they understand that providing this information can be necessary to enable their entitlement to be assessed, so they

are assessed as being eligible. But they expect in providing this information that it will be kept private, it will be kept secure and it will be used to help them, not to hurt them.


Contact: Kelvin Thomson 0419 594 882

Patrick Pantano 0403 502 071