New laws that would allow the Veterans Affairs Department to reveal personal information about veterans in the "public interest" will be subjected to a fresh privacy probe after a backlash by ex-services groups.
Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan has told Fairfax Media that he will ask the Australian Government Solicitor to hold an independent "privacy impact assessment" into the laws before they are finalised by the Parliament.
The laws have prompted concern from veterans groups and a change.org petition that has attracted nearly 7000 signatures. The protesters say the laws would allow the department, in effect, to push back against public complaints by veterans that it regards as misleading and therefore detrimental to public confidence in its services.
"I am happy for the Australian government solicitor independently to do a privacy impact assessment," Mr Tehan said.
"We will have that done once the consultation on the rules and the rules themselves are finalised. And I am happy to take on board the recommendations made by the Australian Government Solicitor."
Veterans groups, notably the Defence Force Welfare Association, had raised serious concerns about aspects of the Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill. Renowned artist Ben Quilty - a former official war artist - has also promoted the petition for an independent privacy assessment on his Facebook page.
While DVA lawyers had done their own privacy assessment, veterans were calling for a more independent probe. The Commonwealth Government Solicitor is the federal government's own lawyer. It sits within the Attorney-General's Department but provides independent legal services to the government.
The Defence Force Welfare Association and RSL National met with the department on Wednesday afternoon. After the meeting, Alf Jaugietis from the DFWA said he was reassured though there was still work to be done to make sure the findings of any assessment were incorporated into the new laws.
"I'm certainly convinced the minister wants (the privacy impact assessment) to be totally independent, not just run by the Attorney-General's Department," he said.
The bill, which has already passed the Lower House and is now before the Senate, allows the department head to "release information about a case or class of cases" in a range of situations including where there is a threat to "life, health or welfare", for the purposes of law enforcement and when there is "misinformation in the community".
It contains a range of safeguards, however. The release could only made by the department head, who would have to tell the person in writing that he or she intends to release the information and give the person a "reasonable opportunity" to respond.
The precise rules about how the department head releases the information will be set by regulations that accompany the bill. These regulations, which are still being drafted, can be knocked back by a majority of either house of Parliament.
It is these regulations that can be adjusted if the Australian Government Solicitor recommends changes. Any breach of the safeguards would be a criminal offence with a fine of $10,800.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman raised concerns in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the bill last month, saying he was "concerned that the release of an individual's personal information has the potential to adversely affect veterans and ex-service personnel, particularly those who are already vulnerable".
He said that the "veteran community is often mistrusting of government and Commonwealth agencies and ??? any measures undertaken that impact the trust and confidence of the veteran community have the potential to jeopardise the uptake of services specific to the community".
Mr Tehan said the personal information part of the bill was being included to clarify and codify exactly when such information could be released, rather than having a legal grey area in which underhand moves such as leaks happen.
"There have been circumstances in the past where there has been a lack of clarity about what could or could not be done ??? Therefore what we want to do is make sure it is very strict, that there can be no leaking of information and that there is criminal sanction if public disclosure is done the wrong way," he said.
The change has attracted particular attention because it coincides with a controversy over the release by the Department of Human Services of a welfare recipient's personal information after she wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media complaining that Centrelink had "terrorised" her over a debt.
But the veterans law has been in progress since well before the Centrelink controversy.