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Centrelink: govt will stop at nothing to curb criticism

The Turnbull government has shown that it will stop at nothing to prevent criticism of its functioning, with the office of one of its ministers, Alan Tudge, leaking information against a woman who wrote about the Centrelink debt notice stuff-up in a newspaper.

Welfare recipient Andi Fox had her personal information released after she penned an op-ed for Fairfax Media about the problems she had faced following receipt of one of the many automated debt notices sent out by Centrelink in December. Fox is claimed to have got some details wrong.

Centrelink sent tens of thousands of letters to people before Christmas, telling them that their earnings were at variance with what they had declared to the Australian Taxation Office.

They were given up to three weeks to explain, or face an adverse assessment and have to pay a recovery fee of 10%. The extent of inefficiency in government ranks can be judged by the fact that Tudge himself expressed surprise when told of this recovery fee.

Some letters dealt with payments made six years ago and even earlier. The Centrelink website itself asks people to keep pay slips for six months.

Fox's details were released to Fairfax journalist Paul Malone. He then attacked both Fox and questioned the accuracy of her claims in an article, according to The Guardian.

But Tudge's office did not only send Malone details of Fox's personal history with Centrelink; it also mistakenly attached two internal briefing documents.

In fact, Tudge's office has so many efficient people that it even sent these same internal briefing documents to The Guardian when this publication began investigating the release of information about Fox.

Let's get this straight. First, there was a stuff-up with the automated debt notices: they were generated from a program that looked at total annual earnings and calculated the average fortnightly pay based on that lumpsum.

Whoever wrote that program was unaware that Centrelink bases its payouts based on fortnightly earnings. And amounts are calculated fortnight to fortnight to gauge one's eligibility to get that money.

Again, that famous automated program looked at income sources and if an employer's name was spelt even slightly differently in the ATO's records, then it assumed it was a different employer. Conclusion? Said man/woman is receiving undeclared income.

That was technological incompetence on a par with the Simpsons. Tudge's staff have now shown that they do not know how to use email. How can one send an attachment to someone without realising they have done so? Maybe these public servants need to start using snail mail and typewriters all over again.

In the middle of this, we have a song and dance by the Labor Party, which has referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police. Given the efficiency levels seen at that outfit, one might as well make a complaint to the United Nations.

These antics aside, the whole episode reveals a frightening turn of events. It shows that the government of a supposedly democratic country is willing to hound one of its citizens for nothing less than a page or two of criticism. Privacy be damned.

Shades of Donald Trump would be an accurate characterisation of this type of behaviour.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.