Politics Analysis

Coalition intimidated the powerless with iron fist

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The Coalition involved the AFP in bullying the helpless throughout the Robodebt scheme (Image by Dan Jensen)

Among the L-NP's fraudulent Robodebt tactics was using the threat of Federal Police punishment as an intimidation method, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

WHILE ROBODEBT is by far the biggest attack on individuals receiving government benefits, it’s not the only one that occurred in 2017 involving then-Minister Alan Tudge.

In 2015, the Federal L-NP Government set up a joint taskforce comprised of experts from the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), known as Taskforce Integrity (TI).  

TI was described as having a “fraud-busting” agenda aimed at cracking down on income support recipients identified as potential “cheats”.

We can be forgiven a few bitter barks of mirthless laughter when we consider that Taskforce Integrity was developed while the illegal Robodebt operation was hitting its stride.

In other words, while the Government seconded the AFP to assist with its efforts to intimidate recipients into acting with “integrity”, ministers and senior public servants were knowingly engaged up to their very necks in an illegal process designed to extort vast amounts of money off people who mostly didn’t have any.

In July 2017, when Tudge held the DHS portfolio, Centrelink sent out some 85,000 letters bearing both that agency’s and the AFP's logo to clients around the country. The letters reminded recipients to keep their personal details up to date and warned of penalties. They ought to have been innocuous reminders, however, the addition of the AFP logo together with threatening and intimidating language deliberately conveyed an entirely different message.

Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) CEO Cassandra Goldie made these comments on the use of the AFP logo:  

It is completely inappropriate for the Government to send letters to income support recipients with the Australian Federal Police logo asking if their details are up to date.


These letters are threatening and completely disregard any mental health issue the person may have.

Opposition Human Services spokeswoman Linda Burney stated in 2017:

“Whether it’s the Robodebt debacle or inserting the AFP’s logo onto Centrelink letterheads, this Government is only interested in victimising and harassing vulnerable Australians.”

If you received income support, your government was your enemy. One way or another, they’d come after you.

In February 2017, an article by writer Andie Fox was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Ms Fox described how she was being pursued by Centrelink for debts incurred by her former partner. Minister Tudge was having none of it. Ms Fox’s confidential personal information was released by Centrelink to Fairfax journalist Paul Malone, who subsequently doxxed Ms Fox.

Tudge defended the exposure, claiming Centrelink had the legal right to release personal information if it was necessary to “correct the record”.

Top KC Robert Richter believed Tudge or one of his staff broke social security law by releasing tax and relationship information about Ms Fox to a journalist.

Tudge was referred to the AFP by Linda Burney. The agency was asked to determine if Tudge had indeed broken the law. Yes, the same agency working closely with Tudge was asked to investigate Tudge. Nothing to see here. Happens all the time.

There is, of course, (this is Tudge we’re talking about) a twist.

The Minister, when questioned in Parliament, claimed:

“In cases where people have gone to the media, with statements that are incorrect or misleading... we are able to, under the Social Services Act, release information about the person for the purpose of, as I quote, ‘correcting a mistake of fact, a misleading perception or impression, or a misleading statement’.  That is what the law allows.”

However, according to Crikey, the legal advice Tudge claims he received “under the Social Services Act”  is nowhere to be found.

Crikey also revealed that department secretary Kathryn Campbell told Senate Estimates that legal advice had not been provided to Tudge.

Linda Burney responded:

“He keeps talking about some sort of legal advice that gave him the okay to leak this information. No one has ever seen that advice and in fact, his department claims that that advice does not exist.”

Despite there being no apparent legal support for Tudge’s decision, the AFP decided there had been no breach of Commonwealth legislation and dropped the matter.

It’s shockingly obvious that nobody – ministers, senior public servants and many of those who administered the programs – was capable of recognising the grim irony of the powerful using illegal methods against the powerless, under the guise of ensuring that the powerless behaved with integrity not required from the powerful.

Corruption doesn’t trickle down, it cascades. 

Taskforce Integrity is still operating and will be until 30 June 2023.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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