Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Human Services. Given that in August last year more than 100 Centrelink employees were sacked or fined or resigned as a consequence of privacy breaches—and the Australians affected were not informed at the time—what safeguards, if any, does the government intend to introduce in its access card legislation to ensure that unauthorised snooping by Commonwealth, state or private sector employees is not allowed?
I thank Senator Stott Despoja for her question and for her interest in the government’s project to bring modern technology to the cards that will help deliver health, social services and Veterans Affairs’ payments to the people of Australia. It is a very important project and a very big project. I think it is incredibly important that we respect the fact that people in Australia have very legitimate concerns about their privacy, the protection of their information and the quality of the processes involved in ensuring that those who need to access Medicare payments, Centrelink payments such as Newstart and youth allowance, and Veterans Affairs’ payments receive them on time, efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, I think it is equally important—and I am sure that Senator Stott Despoja would respect this—that Australians know that the welfare cheats, the people who create fraud against the system in relation to Medicare or other payments, are kicked out of the system. I think that is common ground for me and the senator.
I did make the point yesterday that I believe the Labor Party is stalling and trying to stop this legislation—trying to stop the health and veterans services card—and that makes it entirely appropriate to say, as I have said on occasions, that they are helping those who would conduct fraud against the taxpayer. We must remember that the fraud that takes place—and I will get to the privacy aspects, because they are important—because of the current Medicare card and some of the processes that Senator Stott Despoja has referred to comes out of the back pockets of every Australian. The roughly $4 billion that I think the head of the Australian Federal Police has identified as the cost of identity fraud—and he says 50 per cent of it is based on the Medicare card, which we are seeking to replace—comes out of the back pockets of taxpayers. The fraud against the welfare system and the fraud against the Medicare system—and I think KPMG have estimated that that is up to $3 billion—comes out of taxpayers’ pockets.
It is absolutely proper that we look very closely at the privacy aspects of the new card. What Senator Stott Despoja has highlighted is the fact that under the current system within Centrelink, yes, some Centrelink employees offended. I remind the Senate that we have roughly 38,000 employees within the social services system, the great majority of whom work incredibly hard under incredibly tough circumstances to serve, generally speaking, the people in this community who are doing it the toughest—people who are long-term unemployed, people who need support. They are very good people. Yes, we have—and I do not have the exact figure before me—close to 100 Centrelink employees who have in fact had their employment ceased as a result of inappropriate browsing of other records. We pick that up using high-quality electronic systems. If a case of inappropriate browsing of a customer’s details is found by Centrelink, there are procedures in place to identify the person—it is very easy to identify, using electronic techniques—there are logs kept of anomalous behaviour— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the minister very specifically this: will the government legislate to prohibit unauthorised access, something we do not currently have? In relation to informing those people who may be affected by a privacy breach, will the minister give a commitment that, as part of the access card proposal, those Australians who are affected by a privacy breach will be informed? Will the government make it very clear that Commonwealth officers, for example, who copy, browse or obtain information from the card or the database in an unauthorised way are guilty of an offence if they do so?
Mr President, I do apologise for having been a bit longwinded, but I am trying to get to the key point, which is that the systems that we have in place are zero tolerance. For example, within Centrelink if people are caught browsing inappropriately, they are dealt with very harshly. There are existing laws that deal with that, and they are very effective. As I said, with 38,000 employees you cannot expect all of them to be perfect. But if people are caught—and we have very effective systems in place to catch them—they will be dealt with. So there are existing laws to deal with that and they are working. In terms of suggestions about whether or not, with the introduction of a card which will allow better access for Australians to these services, additional measures need to be put in place, as I have said before a Senate estimates committee and as I have made clear in this chamber, I am very keen to ensure that all Australians know their privacy will be protected. I reassure them that the card does not affect it and that we have fantastic processes in place to protect it under existing legislation. But I retain an open mind in terms of enhancing privacy around the introduction of the card.