Should I drop my private health insurance during the pandemic?



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Sophie Lewis, UNSW and Karen Willis, La Trobe University

Many Australians, especially those experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19, are asking whether they can afford to keep their private health insurance.

Others don’t know if they should drop or downgrade their cover, especially if they cannot or don’t want to access services they’ve paid for.

Now consumer group Choice is recommending people think about dropping extras cover, dropping or downgrading hospital cover and asking their insurance company for hardship considerations, which include waiving premiums or suspending their policy.

What options do you have? And what are the implications of dropping or downgrading your cover?




Read more:
Do you really need private health insurance? Here’s what you need to know before deciding


What services can I use?

Our research shows people take out private health insurance because of shorter waiting times for elective surgery, choice of doctor or hospital, access to a private hospital room, and extras like dental and physiotherapy services.

Although some elective surgeries are due to resume this week, it’s unclear how long it will take hospitals to clear the backlog, which surgeries will be performed and where. This raises questions about whether consumers will be able to access the benefits they value in having private health insurance.




Read more:
What elective surgery will be allowed now the coronavirus situation has improved? It’s up to your surgeon or hospital


While a key reason for taking out private health insurance is to avoid waiting times, people may now have to wait while hospitals and health care providers resume a staged approach to resuming elective surgery and general treatments impacted by the pandemic.

People may also be worried about whether they will receive the care they need if they have COVID-19. However, they should be assured that emergency treatment will be provided through the public system. Many private health insurance companies will also now cover COVID-19 related treatments.

How are private insurers responding?

Modelling by the Australia Institute shows private health insurers could make considerable savings due to a reduction in claims paid to, or on behalf of, consumers during the pandemic.

This is because services, such as elective surgery, and general treatments, such as dental services, are not available or are limited. And it recommends some of these savings should be passed on to policy holders.

Private health insurance companies have assured consumers that any increase in premiums will be delayed by at least six months.

They have also said that some funds resulting from the cancellation of elective surgery or allied health services will be returned to customers. It isn’t clear, though, how this will be done and over what period.

What options do I have?

It’s not surprising if you’re confused about whether to keep, drop or downgrade your private health insurance.

Our research consistently shows consumers find changing private health cover confusing. Increasing costs of premiums, value for money and difficulties understanding policies are common concerns. People aren’t certain what they need cover for, what is a reasonable price to pay, and how much difference there is between the public and private systems.




Read more:
Confused about your private health insurance coverage? You’re not alone


If you are thinking about downgrading your hospital cover or stopping extras cover, think about what services you may need in the future.

Remember that if you downgrade your hospital cover to a lower level of cover some services may be excluded (for instance, pregnancy). If you decide to increase your level of hospital cover in the future you may also need to re-serve waiting periods for those services excluded at the lower level of cover.

Lower levels of cover may exclude some services, such as pregnancy care, which may be relevant in the future.
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If you drop your hospital cover and take it up again in the future, you may pay more due to the Lifetime health cover loading (if you do not take private health insurance up again within 1,094 days of dropping your cover).

Choice is also recommending people drop their extras cover. But your decision about this will depend on the types of services you typically use.

If you decide to drop your extras cover, you may also be required to re-serve waiting periods if you take up extras again in the future.

This means you may need to wait two months for general dental services or physiotherapy, but 12 months for major dental procedures. However these waiting periods vary according to procedure and insurer. So to find out what waiting periods apply, ask your health fund.

If you are experiencing financial hardship you may be able to ask your fund to temporarily waive your premiums or suspend your policy. However, you won’t be covered while your health insurance is suspended.

What happens after the coronavirus?

The pandemic highlights issues with Australia’s health-care system, and how private health insurance operates and is funded.

There has been much critique of government policy encouraging Australians to take out private health insurance, and in particular the subsidising of premiums through the private health insurance rebate.




Read more:
Elective surgery’s due to restart next week so now’s the time to fix waiting lists once and for all


At a time when more consumers are experiencing financial hardship they will question the value of their private health insurance even more than before.

There may be other ways of providing health-care, including fixing waiting lists, that meet the needs of all Australians, while retaining the best aspects of both public and private care.


As decisions about whether to change your private health insurance depend on your personal circumstances, please discuss your options and their implications with your health fund or read the fine print on policy documents.

For independent advice and consumer resources, see the government’s private health insurance website, health department website or consumer organisation websites such as Consumers Health Forum of Australia or Choice.The Conversation

Sophie Lewis, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW and Karen Willis, Professor, Allied Health Research, Melbourne Health, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Federal government gets private hospital resources for COVID-19 fight in exchange for funding support


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Private hospitals will be on the frontline in the coronavirus battle, under an arrangement with the federal government that makes available the sector’s more than 30,000 beds and 105,000 workforce, including more than 57,000 nursing staff.

The government will offer agreements to Australia’s 657 private and not-for-profit hospitals “to ensure their viability, in return for maintenance and capacity” during the COVID-19 crisis.

The agreement makes available more resources to meet the virus crisis, preserves the private hospital workforce, and is designed to allow a speedy resumption of non-urgent elective surgery and other normal activity when the crisis has passed.

The states will complete “private hospital COVID-19 partnership agreements”, with the Commonwealth paying half the cost.

“In an unprecedented move, private hospitals, including both overnight and day hospitals, will integrate with state and territory health systems in the COVID-19 response,” the government said in a Tuesday statement.

These hospitals “will be required to make infrastructure, essential equipment (including ventilators), supplies (including personal protective equipment), workforce and additional resources fully available to the state and territory hospital system or the Australian government”.

Private hospitals will support the COVID-19 response through:

  • Hospital services for public patients – both positive and negative for COVID 19

  • Category 1 (urgent) elective surgery

  • Use of wards and theatres to expand ICU capacity

  • Accommodation for quarantine and isolation cases where necessary, and safety procedures and training are in place, including:

    • Cruise and flight COVID-19 passengers
    • Quarantine of vulnerable members of the community
    • Isolation of infected vulnerable COVID-19 patients.

The cost of the move is estimated at $1.3 billion.

Last week the government announced a ban on non-urgent elective surgery. While this freed up beds and staff, it would also strip the hospitals of core income and threaten the collapse of some hospitals without government action.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the agreement dramatically expanded the capacity of the Australian hospitals system to deal with COVID-19, at the same time as the curve of new cases showed early signs of being flattened.

The private hospitals “are available as an extension now of the public hospital system in Australia. So, whilst we’re not taking ownership, we have struck a partnership, where in return for the state agreements and the commonwealth guarantee, they will be fully integrated within the public hospital system”.

Hunt said the $1.3 billion estimated cost was not capped. “If more is required, more will be provided. If it turns out that it’s not that expensive, then those funds will be available for other activities. That takes our total additional investment to over $5.4 billion within the health sector.”

In a letter to private hospital providers, Hunt stressed: “A fundamental principle of this agreement is that it contributes towards to your ongoing viability, not profits or loan/debt repayments”.

Commonwealth deputy chief medical officer, Nick Coatsworth said intense efforts were being made to ramp up rapidly the number of ventilators.

He said there were some 2,200 ventilated intensive care beds in Australia. Currently just over 20 were being used for COVID-19 patients.

With immediate expansion, including repurposing and use of the private sector, this could be increased to 4,400.

“Our target capacity for ventilated intensive care beds in Australia currently stands at 7,500.

“We are working around the clock to procure ventilators,” he said. “Locally, we will have 500 intensive care ventilators fabricated by ResMed, backed up by 5,000 non-invasive ventilators, with full delivery expected by the end of April.”

The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association welcomed the “ground-breaking agreement” with private hospitals for ensuring both the best use of resources and the stability of the health system for the future.

The Australian tally of cases as of Tuesday afternoon was 4557, with 19 deaths; 244,000 tests had been completed.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s a new era for Australia’s whistleblowers – in the private sector



Whistleblowing will always take some type of toll, but it need not be career suicide.
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Dennis Gentilin, Macquarie University

As strange as it might sound, whistleblowers in Australia have reason to rejoice – so long as they are in the private sector.

Thanks to new laws that came into effect this month, private-sector whistleblowers have a range of new protections. This includes, in certain prescribed circumstances, the prospect of being compensated if they experience adverse outcomes after taking their concerns to the the media.

The timing is ironic, given last month Australia’s federal police launched raids on journalists and media outlets who received and published disclosures from public-sector whistleblowers. If identified and prosecuted, those whistleblowers could face lengthy prison sentences.




Read more:
Why the raids on Australian media present a clear threat to democracy


In fact, private-sector whistleblowers now have, for the first time, greater protection than their public-sector counterparts.

What the new laws do

The catalyst for the new laws was a parliamentary inquiry into whistleblower protection established in November 2016. The inquiry’s final report, published in September 2017, made a total of 35 recommendations. Though 19 were rejected by the federal government, the outcome is still a vast improvement on the previous provisions.

For the first time, federal legislation now defines, in broad terms, the following.

Who qualifies as a whistleblower. The list of those protected for making disclosures goes beyond company officers and employees. It includes suppliers, employees of suppliers, and relatives and dependants of officers, employees and suppliers.

What is a disclosable matter. Whistleblower protection isn’t just for disclosing illegal conduct. It also covers “misconduct” or an “improper state of affairs” (not including concerns about personal work-related grievances).

Who to make a disclosure to. To qualify for protection, whistleblowers no longer need to raise their concern through a “formal” whistleblowing channel. They can go to any officer or senior manager in a company, or to an auditor, or to regulators. Disclosures to journalists and members of parliament also qualify for protection in certain prescribed circumstances.

What constitutes detriment. Detrimental outcomes for whistleblowing are not constrained to dismissal or demotion. They include discrimination, harassment or intimidation, harm or injury (including psychological), and damage to property, financial position or reputation.




Read more:
The secret’s in: how technology is making public interest disclosures even harder


Above all, the legislation empowers the courts to order payment of compensation to whistleblowers who experience detriment. To avoid any liability, organisations must demonstrate they have taken steps to protect whistleblowers.

Promoting protection

The prevailing view is that whistleblowing is a sure path to career suicide. The stories that loom large in the public consciousness are those of whistleblowers who, despite acting in the best interests of the organisations that employ them, are ostracised and abandoned.

Whistleblowing, to be sure, is an arduous undertaking that will always take some type of toll. But this prevailing narrative of significant adverse consequences is misleading.

I say this for two reasons.

The first is personal. In 2004, I was one of the whistleblowers in a major governance failure at the National Australia Bank. It led to four colleagues being jailed and senior executives resigning. Despite this, I went on to spend a further 12 years at the bank. The bank endorsed a book I subsequently wrote about the origins of ethical failure. Chairman Ken Henry even wrote the foreword.

The second, more importantly, is the evidence. The world-leading Whistling While They Work Research Project at Griffith University surveyed close to 18,000 people working in public and private sector organisations across Australia and New Zealand. Of the 4,382 respondents who reported wrongdoing in their organisations, 21% said they were treated well by both management and colleagues, compared to less than 13% who said they were treated badly.



There is no denying whistleblowers sometimes pay a significant price, but these results show positive outcomes are possible.

Beyond ‘tick-the-box’ compliance

The new whistleblowing laws aim to increase those positive outcomes and provide avenues for compensation when whistleblowers aren’t treated well.

The challenge for organisations now is making this happen.

A first step is to put in place a whistleblower policy. The legislation requires that all publicly listed and large proprietary companies have one. Among other things, the policy must detail:

  • the internal channels through which whistleblowers can make disclosures
  • how thorough, independent investigations will be conducted
  • how the interests of the whistleblower will be protected.

As important as formal whistleblowing policies and programs are, however, they are not sufficient. Any “tick-the-box” compliance approach will inevitably fail to promote positive outcomes for whistleblowers without an ethical culture.




Read more:
Solving deep problems with corporate governance requires more than rearranging deck chairs


Organisations must work hard to create environments that support those who raise concerns, and where leaders listen and take action. This will reduce potential liabilities for organisations and help shift the prevailing narrative surrounding whistleblowing.

We are now in a new era for private sector whistleblowers. Of course, the true litmus test will be when the laws are tested in the courts. But my hope is not just that the courts richly (and deservedly) compensate whistleblowers who suffer detriment. I hope the legislation is a catalyst for organisations to create environments that support whistleblowers, recognising the tremendous value they bring to any workplace.The Conversation

Dennis Gentilin, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Love them or loathe them, private label products are taking over supermarket shelves



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Supermarkets are stocking more of their own brands even as they shrink stores.
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Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology and Louise Grimmer, University of Tasmania

Coles is aiming to have private label products make up 40% of its product range over the next five years. This increase will apply across multiple tiers of products, with a focus on quality, innovation and new strategic global relationships.

More supermarket-owned brands will mean lower prices for consumers and greater margins for the retailer. But the move could significantly impact Australian suppliers as their branded products are delisted and supermarkets seek out cheaper manufacturers overseas.




Read more:
Phantom brands haunting our supermarket shelves as home brand in disguise


In Australia, private label products currently account for 18.1% of all retail dollar sales. The proportion is similar in North America (17.7%).

This is significantly less than supermarkets in other countries. Private label products account for 41% of supermarket sales in the UK, 42% in Spain, 36% in Germany and between 27 and 32% in most other European countries.

Why private labels?

In one academic study, 85% of the retailers surveyed said “improved margins” was their main reason for investing in private label products.

A private label product with features and quality parity with national brands may cost retailers 40% to 50% less to manufacture and distribute to customers.

Some American convenience stores claim gross margins of up to 72% on private label bottled water, for instance, compared to 45% on branded alternatives.




Read more:
Woolies private label strategy will play directly into the hands of Aldi


Overall, supermarkets see an 8-10% premium on margins for private label products over branded ones.

Private label products also help retailers differentiate themselves from competitors by giving them unique products.

Private labels have increased their footprint across many retailers, including discount department stores, liquor and convenience stores and traditional full-line department stores like Myer.

The flipside of private label expansion

The main fears about the continued growth of private label brands are that it could discourage suppliers from innovating with their products, jeopardise the livelihoods of smaller, independent suppliers, and ultimately result in less choice for consumers.

Consumers are currently benefiting from increased competition. Progressively higher-quality private label products are available at much lower prices than branded products.

Just a few years ago then Woolworths CEO Grant O’Brien said the company would put customers “before” suppliers.

Some researchers suggest that increasing private label ranges could impede innovation in the food industry. This is largely because branded manufacturers will have less incentive to invest in new products only to have them copied by the contract manufacturers who produce private label goods.

But a recent report from the European Commission actually found innovation in the food supply chain is not under pressure. And a quick wander through any major supermarket will illustrate the effort supermarkets are making to improve quality and introduce new product lines.




Read more:
Woolworths and Coles should heed simplicity lesson from Aldi


Smaller, local independent brand manufacturers and wholesalers could be exposed to “delisting” – where a supermarket does not renew a supply contract in order to free up shelf space for its own private label alternatives.

Naturally, if Coles is aiming to increase the proportion of its own branded products, minor brands will be the ones to disappear from shelves, not major brands like Coke, Cadbury or Nescafe.

As for less choice, most shoppers will not notice the difference, or may enjoy the shopping experience more.

Supermarket shopping is notoriously a low-involvement, mundane and habitual task. Shoppers often visit the same supermarkets, buy the same products and browse the same aisle. In fact, studies continue to demonstrate that the “abundance of choice” is problematic for many shoppers, who simply seek an “optimal choice”.

Research shows that when faced with a “good, better and best” option, people choose the one in the middle. This is why we see supermarkets offering very basic generic private label products all the way through to “select” and “finest” options.

Accordingly, a successful private label strategy hinges on leveraging perceptions of both price and value. Private label products are a key weapon for Coles and Woolworths to compete with Aldi and Kaufland for price-sensitive customers.




Read more:
House-brand push boils down to capitalism’s crisis


Australian supermarkets previously looked to local manufacturers to produce their private label ranges. However, Aldi, Kaufland, Costco and Lidl have found success by leveraging their global sourcing strategies, providing both quality and economies of scale, and so lower prices.

This appears to be on the cards for Coles. It has also announced a wish to develop new strategic global relationships to realise its 40% private label target.

This suggests that Coles may overlook local manufacturers, instead seeking out international manufacturers to produce some ranges.




Read more:
‘Honey, I shrunk the store’: Why your local supermarket is getting smaller


Coles’s announcement comes as supermarkets are getting smaller in the face of rising costs. Together, these trends could have long-term implications for the Australian grocery industry.

The ConversationThe presence of more private label goods will likely require domestic manufacturers to themselves produce more private label goods to minimise offshoring. But, in doing so, manufactuers will commoditise themselves, thereby giving retailers even more power.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Louise Grimmer, Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania

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

Are private patients in public hospitals a problem?


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A new report has claimed public patients are worse off with increased numbers of private patients in public hospitals.
from http://www.shutterstock.com.au

Peter Sivey, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, University of Adelaide

Recently, hospital and aged care provider Catholic Health Australia (CHA) released a report sounding an alarm bell at recent increases in the number of patients in public hospitals being urged to “go private”.

Public hospitals may encourage their patients to “go private” because it allows them to bill the patient’s health insurance and Medicare for costs incurred, rather than having to dip into their own limited budgets. Patients may be persuaded to use their private health insurance after being assured by the public hospital of no out-of-pocket costs, or being promised added extras such as a private room.

The report argued this trend may harm the private hospital sector by affecting profitability and investment decisions. It may also harm the interests of public patients if public hospitals discriminate in favour of treating private patients.

While aspects of these concerns may be valid, there may also be some benefits to public hospitals treating more private patients.

A look at the figures

The report is correct that the numbers of private patients in public hospitals are increasing, at an average of 10.5% per year since 2011-12. Public patients in public hospitals and private patients in private hospitals have also been increasing, but at slower rates of only 2.7% and 4.5% per year respectively since 2011-12.

But percentage rates of change can be misleading. In raw numbers, the increase in public patients in public hospitals (527,467) and private patients in private hospitals (576,135) has actually outstripped the raw increase in private patients in public hospitals (287,473). This is because public patient numbers are increasing from a much larger base (over five million) than private patients in public hospitals (less than one million).

Concerns with this trend

The CHA report notes several concerns with the trend of increasing private patients in public hospitals. They note anecdotal evidence of public patients being pressured to “go private” with incentives including drinks vouchers, better food options and free parking. While these reports may seem concerning, it’s hard to base any change of policy on anecdotal reports.

More worrying is the suggestion that publicly-admitted patients in public hospitals are being discriminated against, for example by being made to wait longer for treatment. The CHA report cites data from an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, which shows waiting times on public hospital waiting lists for public patients (at 42 days) was more than twice that of private patients in public hospitals (20 days).

But this difference is hard to interpret. There may be many differences in diagnosis and disease severity between public and private patients, which may explain the waiting time gap. So we can’t conclude this is evidence of any form of “discrimination” against patients without private health insurance in the public hospital system from these figures.

More robust evidence from public hospitals in NSW in 2004-05 does show private patients were prioritised over public patients. In this study, waiting times for elective surgery were found to be considerably shorter for private patients, despite having similar clinical needs as public patients.

Differences in waiting times between public and private patients were found to be largest for patients assigned to the lowest two urgency levels. In these cases, waiting times for public patients were more than twice as long as for private patients.

There is further evidence, also from NSW public hospitals, that public and private patients may be treated differently when they are assigned to an urgency category for waiting lists for elective surgery. The study suggested private patients were more likely to be assigned into more urgent admission categories, which corresponds with a shorter maximum wait for admission into hospital.

This study also found private patients were likely to receive more medical procedures while in hospital, but found no difference for length of hospital stay or, importantly, for mortality rates.

Potential benefits

One claim of the CHA report is that there has been relatively “stagnant” growth of activity of private patients in private hospitals, potentially affecting their profitability and investment decisions.

First, the figures don’t seem to back this up. The increase in numbers of private patients in private hospitals is actually higher than the increase in numbers of private patients in public hospitals.

Second, even if private hospitals were losing business to public hospitals, it could be a welcome demonstration of competition in the health care market. The trend may be explained through public hospitals providing better amenities, higher quality, or lower costs than private hospitals.

There are some arguments to support continuing the practice of public hospitals admitting private patients. There can be efficiency gains to the health system given that the fees and charges for private patients in public hospitals are usually lower than those in private hospitals. So this form of competition could lower the costs in the health system as a whole.

Additional revenue raised by public hospitals could also support the continual provision of services and programs for public patients, which may have been curtailed due to budget cuts to the public hospital system.

The public hospital system is often seen as unfairly treated by the private sector in how it bears costs for training junior doctors (which takes place overwhelmingly in the public system), and treating the most severely ill patients. From this perspective, it seems only fair to allow public hospitals to take their “share” of the more profitable private patients.

Why we need better data

It’s important to figure out whether private patients are receiving preferential treatment at the expense of public patients. One study found abolishing preferential access for private patients and admitting patients according to when they were listed for an elective procedure would only lead to a small improvement in waiting times for public patients.

This is because long waiting times for public patients are primarily due to budget constraints in public hospitals, and not because private patients are skipping the queue.

The available robust evidence on the treatment of private patients in public hospitals is from more than a decade ago, and it’s unclear if the disparities between how public and private patients are treated have improved or worsened.

The ConversationOne reason for the lack of high quality research on this topic is the restriction on access to detailed hospital data in Australia, which we need for robust studies. If we had access to more detailed data, we could better understand what’s happening now, and ensure timely access to high quality hospital care for both public and private patients.

Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University and Terence Cheng, Senior Lecturer, School of Economics, University of Adelaide

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

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.

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java


Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.

Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.

The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.

About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.

“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.

Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.

Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.

The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”

HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.

Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.

“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”

Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.

“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.

The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.

District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.

“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.

He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.

If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.

 

Other Churches Targeted

Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.

The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.

She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.

“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.

About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.

“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”

Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.

The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.

The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.

Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.

“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.

The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.

“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.

The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.

The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.

Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.

“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.

Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.

Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.

Report from Compass Direct News

Orissa, India Christians Still Face Boycott, Forced Conversion


Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.

“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.

The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.

In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”

He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”

In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.

The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.

With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.

Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.

“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”

The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.

In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.

The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.

“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.

Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.

Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.

Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.

The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.

John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.

“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not  just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their  very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”

Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.

Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.

Report from Compass Direct News