Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Centrelink's Compliance Program; Order for the Production of Documents

3:05 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Government Services) Share this | Hansard source

I table a document relating to the order for the production of documents concerning the income compliance program.

The government does not make public interest immunity claims lightly and without careful consideration of the particular harm to the public interest. As I've previously advised the Senate, I have carefully reviewed the claim of public interest immunity, and I recognise it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information over which the claim has been reiterated in relation to the legal advice and also to the deliberations of cabinet that relate to the income compliance program.

I will again summarise the basis on which this claim was made. As noted by the Federal Court, there remain individuals whose potential claims against the Commonwealth have not been extinguished. I'll say that again: their claim has not been extinguished. This may include over 5,000 people who have opted out of the class action. Disclosing the information requested would obviously have the potential to prejudice the Commonwealth's ability to defend the claims.

The claim over information relating to legal advice has been made on two grounds: firstly, the long-held practice of claiming privilege over legal advice, and associated documents, obtained in the course of normal decision-making processes of government; and, secondly, the possible prejudice to the Commonwealth in relation to its conduct of litigation relating to the income compliance program. The claim is grounded in the importance of government being able to obtain legal advice in relation to the normal decision-making functions, without the risk of that advice or the information relating to that advice being disclosed. The availability of frank legal advice to decision-makers within government should be protected as a fundamental principle of good government. To this very point, I note that the Federal Court has previously found the advice that is a subject of this public interest immunity claim to be privileged legal advice. In fact, His Honour Justice Lee upheld the Commonwealth's claim of legal professional privilege in connection with every one of those documents subject of the challenge from Gordon Legal.

Providing a copy of, or information about, the minute requested would, or could reasonably be expected to, disclose the deliberations of cabinet. By making a public interest immunity claim in respect of the minute, the government is doing no more than standing by a well-established right to protect the public disclosure of cabinet deliberations in the same way as has been done by past successive governments, including by those opposite.

In interlocutory hearings in the class action, the Federal Court upheld claims of public interest immunity in relation to cabinet materials, including this minute. Further, as recently as 4 August this year, the Freedom of Information Division of the AAT found that this document was properly the subject of a cabinet exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.

In closing, the letter from me setting out a detailed explanation about the basis of the public interest immunity claim was provided to the chair of the Community Affairs References Committee in August. These reasons continue to apply.


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