How the law allows governments to publish your private information



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Controversy has recently surrounded Centrelink and its handling of ‘overpayments’ and personal information.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra

Recent controversy over the government’s use of information provided to Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs demonstrates there are major holes in Australia’s privacy regime that we need to fix. The Conversation

Australians are accustomed to providing personal information to federal and state governments. We do it repeatedly throughout our lives. We do so to claim entitlements. We also do so as the basis of public administration – the contemporary “information state”.

In making that state possible we trust we will not be treated as a file number or an incident. We will not be doxed.

A key aspect of that trust, consistent with international rights law since the 1940s, is that our privacy will be protected. We assume officials – and private sector entities they use as their agents – will not be negligent in safeguarding personal information.

We also assume they will not share personal information with other agencies unless there is a substantive need for that sharing – for example, for national security or to prevent harm to an individual. And we expect they will not disclose personal information to the media or directly to the community at large as a way of silencing criticism or resolving disputes.

Australia has a sophisticated body of administrative law and ombudsmen. So, there is no need for public shaming of people who disagree with ministers, officials or databases.

The complicated and inconsistent body of privacy law highlighted by law reform commissions over the past two decades attempts to provide legal protection for personal information. It is overseen by under-resourced watchdogs that – amid threats of termination – are inclined to lick the ministerial hand that feeds them.

That law has major weaknesses, illustrated by the Centrelink controversy and the furore over the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill. The Commonwealth is able to ignore ostensible protections under the Privacy Act and other statutes. That is quite lawful. It has been so for many years, evident in the watchdog’s finding in L v Commonwealth Agency.

The watchdog’s guidelines state that where someone:

… makes adverse comments in the media about the way [a body] has treated them … it may be reasonable to expect that the entity may respond publicly to these comments in a way that reveals personal information specifically relevant to the issues that the individual has raised.

Put simply, if you complain publicly about a Commonwealth agency that holds personal information relating to you, that agency can lawfully give the information to the media or publish it directly. It can do so to correct what the minister deems to be “misinformation”.

There is no requirement that your complaint be malicious, fraudulent, vexatious or otherwise wrong. Disclosure is at the minister’s discretion, not subject to independent review. You have no legal remedies unless it could be proved that the official was malicious or corrupt.

We have seen such a disclosure. The Department of Human Services gave personal information to a journalist for publication about a person who disagreed with action by Centrelink to recover an alleged overpayment of an entitlement.

There has been much discussion in the media and the national parliament about the vigour with which the government is seeking to recover overpayments. Worryingly, it remains uncertain whether many of the alleged overpayments actually exist.

Ongoing changes to entitlements policy, the hollowing out of key agencies by the annual “efficiency dividend” (that is, ongoing cuts to budgets) and problematical design and management of very large information technology projects mean overpayments might not have occurred.

Public disclosure of someone’s personal information thus looks very much like bullying, if not a deliberate effort to chill legitimate criticism and discussion of publicly funded programs.

The veterans’ affairs minister and the shadow minister have apparently not done their homework. The new Digital Readiness Bill – passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate – allows the minister to publicly disclose medical and other personal information about veterans. The rationale for that disclosure is to correct misinformation.

Understandably, veterans are unhappy. Legal practitioners and academics wonder about the scope for public shaming through release of department information that might not be correct.

The national Privacy Commissioner has been complacent. Labor’s veterans’ affairs spokeswoman, Amanda Rishworth, has belatedly expressed concern. The minister has simply referred to the establishment of an independent review by the Australian Government Solicitor and his department. It is difficult to understand why privacy wasn’t properly considered before the bill went into parliament.

There are too many loopholes in Australia’s privacy regime. Government agencies also need to toughen up in the face of criticism – legitimate or otherwise – and not respond by bullying people through publication of personal information.

Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tony Abbott says government’s challenge is ‘to be worth voting for’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Tony Abbott has laid out his policy alternatives to make the next election “winnable” for the Coalition, in a provocative speech that again highlights his differences with Malcolm Turnbull. The Conversation

The former prime minister said the government should say to the people of Australia that it would cut the renewable energy target, reduce immigration, scrap the Human Rights Commission, stop all new spending, and reform the Senate via a referendum held with the next election.

Launching Making Australia Right, a book of essays by conservatives edited by James Allan, Abbott brought together several proposals he has previously argued for.

He took aim at the government’s current signals about the future direction of its energy policy, and attacked its preservation of the 23% Renewable Energy Target (RET), which was negotiated in his time as prime minister.

“The government is now talking about using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to subsidise a new coal-fired power station – creating, if you like, a base-load target to supplement the renewable target,” he said.

“We subsidise wind to make coal uneconomic so now we are proposing to subsidise coal to keep the lights on. Go figure.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to abolish subsidies for new renewable generation and let ordinary market forces do the rest?”

“Of course that would trigger the mother of all brawls in the Senate, but what better way to let voters know that the Coalition wants your power bill down, while Labor wants it up?”

Abbott said the government’s challenge was “to be worth voting for” and to “win back the people who are giving up on us”.

“In or out of government, political parties need a purpose. Our politics can’t be just a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project.”

The next election was “winnable”, he said, outlining the pitches he saw as needed to secure that win.

“If we stop pandering to climate change theology and freeze the RET, we can take the pressure off power prices.”

“If we end the ‘big is best’ thinking of the federal Treasury, and scaled
back immigration – at least until housing starts and infrastructure have caught up – we can take the pressure off home prices.”

“If we can take our own rhetoric about budget repair seriously and avoid all new spending and cut out all frivolous spending, we will start to get the deficit down.”

“If we refuse to be the ATM for the states, there might finally be some microeconomic reform of our public education and public health systems.”

“If we stopped funding the Human Rights Commission and leave protecting our liberties to the parliament, the courts and a free press where they belong, we might start to look like the defenders of western civilisation that we aspire to be.”

Speaking on Sky, Abbott said that “plainly there are lots of people concerned about our direction” and warned “the risk is we will drift to defeat if we don’t lift our game”.

He also criticised Turnbull’s decision to stay in his own home in Sydney.

“I think it would be a better look if the prime minister did live in Kirribilli House,” he said. He understood Turnbull not wanting to be a burden on the taxpayer but “by trying to avoid being a burden to the taxpayer, in the end, you end up costing the taxpayer more”.

When he was prime minister Abbott was reluctant to move from his own home to Kirribilli but was persuaded to do so.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/j795u-67fef0?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After all the talk, what is the Turnbull government actually doing for small business?


Martie-Louise Verreynne, The University of Queensland and Thea Voogt, The University of Queensland

Treasurer Scott Morrison continues to warn about the decline of Australia’s global competitiveness if the centrepiece of the 2016–17 federal budget – a company tax rate cut – is not passed.

However, such tax cuts are not necessarily the best approach for the government to support small business. They need other – more immediate – forms of support, our research shows.

What’s being proposed?

The 2016-17 budget reflected the Turnbull government’s catchphrase of “jobs and growth”. From a small-business perspective, the budget wanted to:

… boost new investment, create and support jobs and increase real wages, starting with tax cuts for small and medium-sized enterprises, that will permanently increase the size of the economy by just over 1% in the long term.

In 2014, Australia had the fifth-highest company tax rate among OECD countries, albeit average in the Asia-Pacific region. Local investors benefit from lower taxes on dividends through Australia’s dividend imputation system, which passes credits onto them for corporate taxes already paid.

The Abbott government later succeeded in lowering the tax rate for small businesses with a turnover of less than A$2 million from 30% to 28.5%. The Turnbull government’s plan would eventually reduce the rate for all companies to 25% by 2026-27. It’s a phased implementation over the next ten years, starting with an immediate cut for small companies to 27.5%.

However, 70% of small businesses are unincorporated. This means their owners add profits to their personal income for tax purposes. While the government has promised an increase in their tax offset percentage, it plans to retain the cap of A$1,000.

All small businesses will benefit from the simplification of tax rules for stock, GST and depreciation. But the government’s plan introduces three levels of concessions for small businesses. This complicates the definition of what these small businesses are.

Definition disputes

Defining small business goes beyond an academic debate.

With little consensus on typical turnover numbers – these range from A$2 million to A$25 million – a better indicator could be the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of small businesses as those with fewer than 20 employees. And 97% of the 2.1 million businesses trading in Australia fit this definition.

It is risky, though, to simplify the definition into one blunt instrument that ignores differences in industry, life cycle and high-volume versus high-worth sales. A more nuanced approach is needed to ensure relief for the businesses that need it most.

However, the major political parties seemingly remain focused on turnover as a measure of what is and isn’t a small business. The government’s plan extends the upper limit for the turnover of small businesses to A$10 million by 2016–17, which covers some of the 3% of Australia’s non-small businesses.

Meanwhile, Labor has argued for immediate support for tax cuts to small businesses with a turnover of less than A$2 million.

Lifting the turnover threshold for all small businesses from A$2 million to A$10 million in the short term will increase the number of businesses that can access some tax concessions by 90,000. And it may improve economic growth as larger firms receive some relief.

What small businesses actually need

Small businesses need immediate and certain tax relief in the short term. They struggle with an uncertain business environment.

But, in the longer term, our research shows increased competition, a lack of market demand and red tape are but a few of the issues small businesses deal with. They highlighted statutory and regulatory compliance, as well as tax planning and compliance, as major issues for them.

More than tax rates, complex tax requirements and regulations are issues causing small businesses substantial distress. The Australian Tax Office’s research supports this: more than 70% of surveyed clients viewed their tax affairs as complex. And the World Bank’s ease of doing business index ranks Australia 25th in terms of ease of paying taxes.

The immediate tax relief for small businesses is tied up in proposed legislation surrounding the government’s ten-year tax plan, which is unlikely to find enough support to pass the parliament in its current form. The uncertainty and complexity that have ensued from the political conflict over tax have negative effects on the small business landscape.

Innovation is likely to suffer under such uncertain conditions. The government’s plan recognises that:

Small businesses are the home of Australian enterprise and opportunity and they are where many big ideas begin.

In addition to ideas and passion, small businesses need resource availability, appropriate capabilities and market access to innovate. The plan proposes measures that satisfy some of these criteria, but more focus on finding ways to minimise bureaucracy to provide time to focus on innovation is needed.

The role of government is undeniable in such initiatives. Even if one argues that tax relief is a temporary reprieve, this cash injection can jump-start small business innovation and growth.

Should the two major parties fail to find common ground on the government’s company tax cut, the stalemate will continue – and leave small businesses in the lurch.

The Conversation

Martie-Louise Verreynne, Associate Professor in Innovation, The University of Queensland and Thea Voogt, Lecturer in Tax Law, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mathias Cormann’s Economic Girlie Man – Write Your Own Stuff!!!


So Mathias Cormann is quoting ‘The Terminator,’ or is it from ‘Mad as Hell?’ You be the judge. Maybe he should try writing his own stuff!!!

For more read the article at:
http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/oct/18/mathias-cormann-calls-bill-shorten-an-economic-girlie-man

Australian Politics: 15 October 2013 – Denial Defiance


Australian Politics: 29 September 2013 – The Slow Death of the Greens?


The federal election is over and the Coalition is now in government. Already there is a growing dissatisfaction with the new Abbott-led government over a wide-ranging series of issues including nepotism, asylum seeker policy, the environment, a lack of governance, etc. There is also continuing debate within the various opposition parties concerning their future direction, policies, etc. Yet for the Greens, the future is questionable, with some believing the party to be in serious decline – even among those within the party.

The link below is to an article reporting on the turmoil within the Greens party.

For more visit:
http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/milnes-greens-marching-to-slow-death-20130928-2ulgp.html