When it comes to trust, a good offence is your worst defence


Centrelink bosses think they stayed within the law but they “rode roughshod” over conventional attitudes to privacy, writes ethicist Matthew Beard. Governments should pick their battles to earn the trust of the public.

Conventional wisdom suggests if you want someone’s trust, you should prove you’re trustworthy. If you want someone to put themselves in a vulnerable position, show them you’ll be responsible with your power.

By extension, if you want to hold people’s intimate and private details, keep them private.

When the offices of Alan Tudge released writer Andie Fox’s private Centrelink records to journalists, they rode roughshod over this rule.

“When we’re on the defence, it’s tempting to do whatever we can to protect ourselves. But when survival is synonymous with trust, a more nuanced approach is necessary.

In an article in the Canberra Times, Fox criticised her experiences with Centrelink’s debt collection processes. In the eyes of staff in Tudge’s office, the piece contained some facts that were misleading.

In order to “correct the public record”, they released her Centrelink records to the press. But they sent more information than they had intended. Plus, they sent it to more journalists than they had planned.

There are two levels to this.

First, there are questions about the appropriateness of “a government leaking people’s private information to win an argument”, as The Project’s Gorgi Coghlan put it to Barnaby Joyce.

Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with wanting facts represented accurately on the public record. Everyone deserves to be represented accurately, especially in public. For the minister’s office to want to come to Centrelink’s defence may well have been motivated by a genuine desire to protect their colleagues’ reputations. But even if their intentions were good, it’s not enough to save them here.

The careless way in which staff tried to correct the public record failed to consider the fallout for government services. Nor did they account for how their actions would be perceived by the public, who trust the government with swathes of personal information.

Centrelink are already facing a public relations crisis. An organisation designed to help vulnerable Australians is being accused of unprofessionalism and callousness in the way it has tried to crack down on welfare overpayments.

Although these actions were undertaken by the minister’s office, the public are unlikely to differentiate between them and Centrelink. This means Centrelink now face the additional problem of being perceived to be reckless with personal information.

For those who do understand the distinction, things aren’t much better. The government is being painted as out of touch with the poor and working classes – some are describing the recent penalty rates decision as a “war on the poor”. It’s in this context that Fox – a single mother clearly distressed at her treatment – had her records provided to the press.

That’s a high price to pay to “correct the public record”.

If the government wants to claim the right to retain and use people’s data, it has a responsibility to do so with care and respect. When rights aren’t exercised responsibly, there is usually a discussion about whether they should be taken away. In sending more information than intended to more people than intended, private information was not treated with the care it deserved.

This makes it harder for any citizen to believe their information is being kept in confidence and used only when necessary. Ironically, that’s more or less what “correcting the public record” was intended to do: to prove the government, specifically Centrelink, was more trustworthy than an article had led people to believe.

Instead, Australians are now unsure how much power or trust the government deserves to have with their private data. Labor are now reconsidering their support for veterans’ affairs legislation which permits data to be released “to correct public misinformation”.

Correcting misinformation is argued to be in the public interest. Presumably, the public have an interest in not being falsely led to believe their government is inadequate. People need to trust their government.

For government, there are no higher values than the public interest. It’s the reason they exist and should dictate the way they decide what they should do. Through the lens of public interest, it’s easy to see how self-defeating last week’s course of action was. It did far more damage to public trust than Fox’s article ever could have.

It’s not hard to inadvertently shoot yourself in the foot. When we’re on the defence, it’s tempting to do whatever we can to protect ourselves. We circle the wagons and shoot whatever is in front of us. But when survival is synonymous with trust, a more nuanced approach is necessary.

Right now, trust in institutions and government are at historic lows. People aren’t interested in whether government obeyed the law, they’re concerned with whether it adhered to a more general sense of right and wrong. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the recent political expenses debate. Sussan Ley didn’t break the rules but she did do the wrong thing in the eyes of the public.

So too did Alan Tudg office. Even if the right to correct misinformation justified what they decided to do, a proper ethical justification would require a consideration of other factors. For instance, the right the privacy, the need for government to prove themselves responsible stewards of personal data and the reputational fallout for Centrelink all needed to weigh into the final decision.

In a democracy, the government isn’t guaranteed the trust of its citizens. It needs to be earned. Sometimes, this might require sacrificing short-term public opinion for the longer and more valuable prize.

Dr Matthew Beard is an ethicist and writer at The Ethics Centre.