ABC News by political reporter Henry Belot
The Federal Government will abandon its push for new powers to release the personal information of veterans should it wish to correct deliberately misleading public statements.
The ABC revealed concerns about the legislation earlier this month with sections of the veteran community fearing it was designed to silence public criticism.
The proposal was wrapped into a larger Digital Readiness Bill aimed at improving veteran services and will now be dropped to secure passage through the Senate.
The powers would have given the department secretary the ability to disclose otherwise protected information about veterans provided they obtained a public interest certificate.
Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said the broader bill was an important piece of legislation that would modernise the Government’s IT systems and provide better services.
“The public disclosure measures were aimed at strengthening privacy protections for veterans but given misinformation in the community we decided to act in the best interests of the veterans’ community and remove this section of the bill,” he told the ABC.
The proposed changes passed the House of Representatives within hours of Labor referring Human Services Minister Alan Tudge to the police after he authorised the release of a welfare recipient’s details to a journalist.
That prompted Labor’s veteran affairs spokeswoman Amanda Rishworth to raise concerns about the legislation, despite her party voting for the bill hours earlier.
On Monday, Ms Rishworth welcomed the Government’s decision to sideline the public interest disclosure provision entirely.
“While Labor was continuing to work with the Government to strengthen the rules to ensure veterans were not left any worse off, we believe that their amendment to remove them entirely is appropriate given the amount of community concern,” she said.
“Labor has continually raised concerns about the provisions to release personal information and in light of recent community concerns, are pleased the Government has sought to remove the Public Interest Disclosure provision from the bill.”
When the bill was introduced into the Senate last week, Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore said she was “very concerned about the eventual release of personal information”.
“There is a fear in the veteran community that these measures will only service to silence them from speaking out,” she said.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie said the Government’s claim that veterans had been consulted about the proposal was “absolute rubbish”, and said the bill failed to protect veterans’ personal information.
“Veterans make an enormous sacrifice to serve and protect our great nation,” she said.
Under the proposal, the Government would have had to notify a veteran in writing of an intention to disclose information and provide them with an opportunity to object.
In a bid to ease concerns, Mr Tehan had previously agreed to an external privacy assessment of the proposal.
The Government had maintained the proposal was designed to strengthen privacy procedures, rather than undermine them.
“The privacy safeguards that currently exist for protecting veterans’ privacy information are pretty feeble,” he said earlier this month.
“There is not really any stick to go with them if someone decides to exploit a veteran’s information.”