What are these operations? Operations which target certain industries, although may not be confined to industries. Most likely to be cash economy industries. Therefore workers who, for various reasons, don’t want to be traced. The most commonly targeted industries are: Taxi Courier Agricultural workers (primarily those who work seasonally ie fruit pickers, vineyard workers) Hospitality In bound tourism operators Tow-truck industry Brothels (illegal & legal) Chicken factories
The federal agencies involved can be all of, or a combination of, Centrelink, ATO, DIMIA and Federal Police. State agencies can be all of, or a combination of, State Police, Taxi Directorate, EPA, Sheriffs, transport departments, brothel inspectorates and, in one bizarre instance in Queensland, the Office of Fair Trading. Local councils are sometimes also involved.
How do they work? As a general rule, the federal agencies need a state agency with coercive powers Centrelink, DIMIA and ATO don’t have general coercive powers. Nor can the Federal Police step in unless federal laws are being broken. This is where the state agencies come in. Most of the operations involve pulling over vehicles. Vehicles from particular industries – taxis etc - or vehicles taking workers home from the workplace of interest ie fruit pickers. Visits to worksites can be facilitated by agencies which have power to enter worksites and ask questions ie brothel inspectorate. So a typical operation might involve a roadside inspection area to which taxis, for instance, are pulled over.
Police do licence checks etc EPA, if there, do a compliance check. The taxi directorate would check whatever it is taxi directorates check – identification etc presumably. Sheriffs, if there, check for outstanding warrants. The federal agencies do their own checks. Now it gets murky None of them have the right to ask the drivers for their details, or get them from one of the other agencies.
I spoke to a co-ordinator of these operations from Centrelink, Joe Judge. Asked him if Centrelink officers told workers they did not have to give Centrelink information. He said of course they did. He would say that, wouldn’t he? Taxi drivers tell a different story. People just appear at their window and ask questions. They don’t tell you why, and they usually don’t identify themselves. A small article in Meter, the NSW Taxi Council magazine, detailed complaints from drivers after operations. These included drivers details being passed to unnamed, plain clothed people without explanation. The drivers also complained of lack of respect and extreme rudeness, with one driver saying he was reduced to tears by unreasonable demands placed on him during an operation at The Rocks.
Results of operations tell their own story. Why give details if you know you’re doing something wrong? But people obviously do. DIMIA uses mobile technology to check people’s visa status immediately. Centrelink checks later, but probably also has access to, and uses, mobile technology. Interpreters used? Unlikely.
Would be interesting to know how the operations involving pulling over buses transporting farm workers work. Although the police can ask for the driver’s details, they can’t ask anyone else (legally, anyway) – so how do they get the information?
Operations could also be targeting general public. Victoria Police media release in April this year gave details of Operation Drive Safe on 27 April. Took place between 8am & 4pm on one road in an inner city suburb. As well as police, included Taxi Directorate, the EPA, DIMIA, Sheriff’s Office and Centrelink. 1500 vehicles checked. 113 found to be unroadworthy, 42 were taxis. Clear that majority of cars pulled over were not taxis. Press release doesn’t tell us whether officers from the federal agencies approached all cars pulled over or only taxis.
In March spokeswoman for Joe Hockey talks about another operation in Melbourne involving taxis. Claims that operations are like a random breath test, and says that the program is much bigger than just catching taxi drivers. “It’s not just taxi drivers, but couriers and any drivers”. Doesn’t qualify whether she means private drivers pulled over at random are also targets of these operations.
Operation Cinnamon on the Gold Coast involved Queensland Office of Fair Trading, police, Queensland Transport and federal Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources and Centrelink in a blitz on tour operators and tourist shops. Operation aimed at so called ‘rogue’ tourist operators, and interpreters were used to tell more than 1100 tourists their shopping rights. No explanation of Centrelink’s involvement. What were they doing there? Who did they interview? And why?
Operation Grasstree conducted in the Lismore and Nimbin areas over four days in July this year. Police patrolled streets around Lismore with dogs, manned roadblocks into Nimbin, along with DIMIA. Centrelink officers visited hospitality and harvesting industries around Nimbin, cancelled or suspended payments of 19 people, and targeting 78 more for further investigation. The newspaper articles don’t go into how they found the workers who were on benefits. DIMIA found nobody with immigration irregularities. The police charged 21 people with possession, but found no commercial quantities of drugs These are all incidents in which it would appear the general public have been targeted either specifically by operations, or as result of a targeted operation.
When did they start? And why? The Cash Economy Taskforce established by Commissioner of Taxation in November 1996. Objective to examine nature of cash economy, determine likely compliance issues & develop a view about additional steps the ATO could take to address tax evasion in the cash economy. In July 1997 the task force presented its first report to the commissioner of taxation.
One finding was ATO couldn’t address issues of cash economy alone. So one recommendation was ATO should work cooperatively with tax practitioners, industry and community groups and other government agencies on cash economy initiatives. Inter Agency Cash Economy Working Group, comprising ATO, DIMIA & Centrelink, was established. ATO lead agency of the group, focus was compliance with tax requirements, rather than the requirements of the other agencies.
Activities group identified as important were sharing of information and data matching. By 1999, Phillip Ruddock, in his then role as minister for immigration and multicultural affairs, told parliament activities of interagency cash economy working group included investigating possibility of undertaking joint prosecutions for taxation and social security offences, outposting Centrelink officers to ATO sites and identifying potential joint activities.
Two years later focus of group seems to morph from ATO compliance activities to DIMIA activities. In December 2001 DIMIA issues media release detailing its multi agency operations since September 2001. Operations occurred in Victoria, NSW and Queensland and led to 175 people being detained by DIMIA. Focus on DIMIA’s operations may have been a result of 9/11.
By 2003 Centrelink seemed to become the dominant agency. Funds provided to Centrelink in the 2002-03 budget to implement national program of inter-agency field investigation projects as an ongoing fraud detection measure. This announcement seems little odd, given Centrelink had been involved nationally since inception of group, perhaps allowed more officers to be allocated. Whatever the reason, result seems to be that Centrelink now the lead agency in driving the process.
Asked Joe Judge who initiated multi-agency operations. He claimed initiative could come from any number of agencies. He said that, if the police, for instance, were planning a roadblock on taxis or couriers, they might invite federal agencies along. At other times Centrelink or DIMIA might express interest in a certain area and approach police to organise operation. Tried over some days to find someone in Victoria Police who might be the contact person for the inter- agency group, but to no avail.
It wasn’t until the start of this year that inter-agency group mentioned again in parliament. In early March, Joe Hockey, Minister for Human Services, told parliament he could now report on a “previously unreported operation”, Operation Oxford, conducted by Victoria Police and Centrelink in February. According to Joe Hockey only Victoria Police and Centrelink were involved, but there were probably more agencies. The operation involved a roadblock and 500 vehicles were stopped for inspections and licence checking. Of these, 220 were taxi and courier drivers who were questioned by Centrelink.
Out of those 220, 13 people were identified as receiving benefits whilst working without declaring their income. The tenor of the speech was very much that this was somehow a new project, which Centrelink had been undertaking as a series of ‘covert’ operations in the past year. Hockey then put out a press release about Operation Oxford. May have done this because first operation to get widespread publicty.
Operation Oxford was subsequently reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as the ‘first trial of a CSI-style program’, which Joe Hockey ‘claimed credit for’ in parliament. Article went on to say that ATO, which had been criticised by the Auditor-General for its cash economy program, would not be setting up similar roadblocks, and would not comment on the Centrelink program. Maybe they were sulking.
So where are we now? Majority of press releases on operations in past few years come from Hockey’s office. Other agencies surprisingly quiet about their involvement. Press release put out by the Victoria police in April is the only press release of any state police force in Australia on the subject. DIMIA is surprisingly quiet on them as well. Last press release from DIMIA is from December 2003. The ATO has never put out a press release in relation to the operations.
Politicians are similarly pretty silent. Have been only two mentions in federal parliament of the group’s activities. There is no mention of the operations to be found in any state hansard – haven’t checked the territories. Media on the operations has been totally unquestioning, and appear to simply rehash press releases.
One of the biggest hassles getting people to realise there is problem is the agencies involved fog the matter by making it seem as if checks and operations which arise through intelligence are exactly the same as the inter- agency operations. A further complicating matter is that inter- agency operations become conflated with operations like raids on illegal brothels, which often find sex slaves and are therefore seen as being worthy and not open to criticism.
A report on a recent raid on an alleged illegal brothel in Heathmont, in outer suburban Melbourne, is a case in point. Whilst it didn’t find any sex slaves, was initiated in response (allegedly) to complaints from residents. The place had been issued with a warning by Maroondah Council in March, which was apparently ignored. In response, on 22 August eight police, DIMIA, an officer from Maroondah Council, representatives from Consumer Affairs (they would have been from the prostitution control board), the ATO and Centrelink turned up on the front doorstep. There were four people inside.
Press releases on operations stress intelligence related activities, rather than trawling expeditions. Both Centrelink and DIMIA are constantly pushing their dob-in lines In 2002-03, Centrelink undertook 58,788 reviews based on tip- offs from the public, resulting in 12,565 payment reductions. Dimia estimates that, in 1999-2000, tip-offs assisted in 19% of what it calls ‘priority’ locations. Certainly in these agencies interests to make it seem to the public that operations come about as a result of tip-offs. However the reality is, most of these operations are probably trawling expeditions – not operations on workplaces where Centrelink knows they have ‘customers’ or DIMIA has intelligence there are workers with visa irregularities.
Another good example of how the agencies get away with taking liberties in these operations came in a conversation I had with Peter from the NSW Taxi Association (subsequent to the conference). I asked him if, after the complaints received from members (detailed earlier), they had checked out the legalities. Peter told me that, after a long time, the police and the taxi directorate came back to the association and told them that, as taxi drivers signed a release form allowing the directorate to pass on info to other agencies, this allowed the directorate to hand over drivers’ info at a road block operation.
I said I doubted this was correct – the release probably permits the directorate to hand over the info if an agency comes to them with a reasonable suspicion – ie, Centrelink has had a tip-off that a customer could be driving a taxi, and has a name to be checked. But I doubt it allows the directorate to just hand over information for no reason except that they are asked.
Peter said they had not had that information checked by a lawyer. When I expressed surprise that the association would let this happen to its members, he said that he understood what I was talking about, but that ‘it’s only a principle’. In other words, the day to day practicalities of working in the industry preclude making a stand against the illegal use of workers’ information, and he said as much.
Who cares anyway? There’s good reason for the legal community and the wider community to be much more concerned than they are. Even being aware would be a good start. Inconceivable such large, intimidating operations could be taking place and no-one is complaining. No media organisation has even questioned these operations. Says a lot about what we have become habituated to and what we expect to be subjected to.
If officials from Centrelink or DIMIA walked up to people in the street and started asking questions, there would be outrage. These operations are tantamount to these agencies doing exactly that. Possibly one of the reasons why there has been so little comment is that workers in the industries involved operate on the margins. Likely their English may not be very good. Likely their ability to access agencies which might make complaints on their behalf is limited. More than likely they just want to keep their heads down – particularly if they are not Australian citizens. A bit strange that people who were pulled up in roadblocks haven’t said anything (although may have been canvassed in talkback).
Also always attitude from general public that, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t complain about being pulled up. We seem to be becoming increasingly complacent about how far authorities can intrude into our lives, not when it has been proven there is any wrongdoing, or there is even the suspicion of wrongdoing, but in order to actually find out if there is any wrong doing. In Victoria and NSW, (and other states?), police have taken to patrolling the streets with sniffer dogs, looking for drugs. But apart from the creeping nature of our increasing tolerance of authoritarian measures, there is another reason why we should be very wary of, and concerned about, anything which involves Centrelink being given more power.
Centrelink increasingly becoming government’s arm of sweeping intrusions into our lives. Proposal for smartcard is a good example of this. Community as a whole will cop measures that mostly impact on the vulnerable and marginalised. This makes Centrelink ideal agency for government to introduce programs that affect us all. Rhetoric surrounding the smart card has been that it will make life easier for those on benefits and cut down on welfare fraud. This makes the card easier for the community as a whole to accept. It seems to have gone under the radar that the card will also be needed to access Medicare, which means that we will all need one, unless you decide never to claim a Medicare benefit. Still need it to access PBS rebates on drugs. Only the rich will be able to avoid having a smartcard. The rich, and those who never get ill.
Centrelink already at the heart of systems which can access every citizens’ private records. Automatic data-matching program involving federal agency data banks being extended to state governments and private sector. These are systems which constantly trawl through millions of records looking for slightest change in personal circumstances. Data match data from Centrelink, ATO, DIMIA, child support agency, Medicare, Department of Health and Aging and Department of Employment and Workplace relations. Various agencies from state governments are being gradually linked in. This includes horse racing regulators, land title offices, workcover authorities, building and construction authorities, state revenue authorities and vehicle registering authorities.
Centrelink also involved in pilot projects to electronically match data with banks, insurers, Coles and Woolworths. DEWR building connections to swap information with Centrelink and the private sector agencies which make up the national employment network. Novell was contracted early last year to provide Centrelink with 31,000 fingerprint scanners. These are supposedly a security system for staff using Centrelink networks. However Centrelink only has 25,448 employees. Despite being asked, Joe Hockey and his spokespeople have refused to comment on whether the scanners are going to be used for fingerscanning clients.
I should note here that Joe Hockey has said that the new smart card will simply ‘unlock your ability to get a medicare payment’ when you go to a medicare office (not sure why this has to be fixed – it’s pretty simple as it is). He claims there will be no ability for agencies to search across other agency databases, so if you’re not a centrelink customer, centrelink won’t know about you.
The head of the access card project, Kerri Hartland, says that large amounts of info won’t be held on the card, but rather it will be a set of ‘keys’. She claims there will be no provision of card infrastructure to the private sector. Although she does say that ‘what’s been endorsed’ is the provision of infrastructure to support pharmacists, GPs and emergency workers – I’m not sure why she thinks GPs and pharmacists aren’t part of the private sector!
Also, neither she nor Joe Hockey have addressed in their statements the fact that identifying details will be, by virtue of the card, in the centrelink system. This probably means they will be vulnerable to being involved in the wider automatic data-matching system. Joe Hockey and Kerri Hartland are assuring the current inquiry into the card that earlier mooted proposals like having bio-metric information on the card, or using it to hold small amounts of cash so it can be swiped for, say child-care centres, will not go ahead.
This allows them to neatly side-step the fact that the information it will contain – name, address, dob, dependents, photo and signature – are more than enough for current data matching systems to match up information during data ‘trawls’.
Australian Government Information Management Office is running internal trials of wikis, web-based software tools that allow internet communities to get together and collaborate on establishing information services. IBM got the contract earlier this year to overhaul DIMIA’s IT system. IBM’s head of innovations, Brad Kassall, says DIMIA and Centrelink want to create a new application that can access travel and financial information and feed in news from wherever net users have been or are going and then, based on all this information, know instantly who they want to scrutinise more closely.
Centrelink seems to be the lead agency in these operations. Classic case of function creep, or something more Focus has shifted from original ATO project. Budget papers this year also alluded to Centrelink fraud investigators being given more power.
As we get more habituated, or maybe resigned to, intrusions like multi-department operations, easier it becomes for agencies to introduce new tools and measures. DIMIA already use sophisticated mobile technology on these operations. If Centrelink is not already doing the same thing (although it has less imperative to than DIMIA) probably will be soon. Given existing and new technology, imagine the information these two agencies alone will have at their fingertips the minute they get a name.
Will these federal agencies be given power to ask anyone their personal details. Even the police can’t just walk up to people in the street and demand their name and address. Point needs to be made to these agencies, and it needs to be made now, that they cannot get away with bluffing and bullying people into giving them their details.
And just one further point – state agencies which have been given coercive powers for specific reasons, aiding federal agencies which haven’t been given coercive powers, for good reasons, to do their dirty work. Looked through Victoria’s state constitution to see if there’s any provisions which could stretch their interpretation to prevent this co-operation, but there is none. Perhaps those here from other states could do the same thing. Possibly most likely constitution to have such a provision is the WA constitution, given that WA refused to be part of the federation process.
What to do? Tad stuck on this! At the meeting a couple of months ago, discussed whether putting out information sheets on your rights in these situations would be a good approach. Probably waste of time. Very difficult to distribute, hard to know range of languages they should include and can’t necessarily rely on the most vulnerable of the target groups being literate. Information on electronic media would run into the same problem, although it maybe wouldn’t hurt to post some info on backpacker’s sites.
Legal action to see if they could be prevented from either forming multi-agency groups or be forced to provide information about who you have to disclose information to would be a good option. Even if it failed, the resultant publicity would be excellent. However I’m not clever enough to come up with the grounds. As I said before, I’ve trawled the Victorian Constitution, and had a good hard look at the Federal Constitution, but it doesn’t seem to me there’s any basis for a constitutional challenge.
But I’m not a constitutional lawyer so I’m sure someone else could perhaps find a ground I know nothing about – could the authority for the forming of the multi-agency group be traced back to a head of power that doesn’t allow for its operation??
Complaint to HEROC if it looked like they were indulging in racial profiling, but I don’t think that’s got a chance. For a start we’d need a complainant, probably not an easy person to find.. Anyway, no one race is being targeted. Those who are targeted while they are working could perhaps challenge their employer on the basis of being bullied and harassed while at work. A courier or a tow truck driver may be the go here, as taxi drivers employment arrangements are often highly suspect. Those who are pulled up in vans outside work might not be able to run the same argument, although if the farm is providing the van they may have an argument. But once again this relies on people being willing to complain, and I just don’t see it happening.
A media campaign perhaps. Feel there’d be a bit of interest, but probably all DIMIA would have to say is ‘we’ve found so many illegals’ and all Centrelink would have to say is ‘these operations have saved the taxpayer $30 million this year’, and our argument would be lost.
Suggestions which came from the conference were to work out the real cost/benefit analysis of these raids, get questions asked in parliament/s, run media campaigns. Also felt that it would be good to link into other campaigns ie the anti-smart card campaign.
Sources Improving Tax Compliance in the Cash Economy ATO, April 1998 The Cash Economy under the New Tax System, ATO, September 2003 Our Accountability – Centrelink, 2002-03 Onshore Compliance – Visa Overstayers and Non-Citizens Working Illegally – DIMIA – 2004-05 Review of the ANAO Audit Reports 1998-99: Management of Tax File numbers, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration, 6 March 2000 Hansard, House of Representatives, 3 June 1999
Hansard, NSW Legislative Council, 19 September 2002 Hansard, House of Representatives, 2 March 2006 175 detained in Major Compliance Operations, press release, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 20 December 2001 Police nix civil liberties, Maryke Steffens et al, NewsDay 2002 UTS Viking storms on despite media coverage, ABC Newsonline, 24 May 2002 Crackdown on Welfare Cheats, press release, Department of Family and Community Services, 1 August 2003
Cash workers busted, Kimberley Echo, 18 September 2003 Centrelink Raid catches 14 Welfare Cheats, ABC News Online, 2 October 2003 Immigration Raids Catch 126 Illegals in Sydney, press release, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 14 December 2003
Centrelink’s orchard blitz, Veronica Buck, Donnybrook- Bridgetown Mail, 16 December 2003 Traffic Blitz moves to Southern Cross, ABC News Online, 16 March 2004 Operations net more than 30 illegal workers in Sydney, press release, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 17 September 2004 Immigration Blitz sees pair face deportation, ABC Newsonline, 15 March 2005 Centrelink backs up fingerprint scanners with Novell, Renai LeMay, ZDNet Australia, 16 March 2005 Respect for law abiding drivers, Meter (magazine of the NSW Taxi Council, June/July 2005 Blitz nabs harvesters, Berwick Gazette, 16 November 2005
Cops, Lebs, and the new civil war, Patrick Carlyon et al, The Bulletin, 1 February 2006 Taxi Crackdown sees five cab drivers fired, ABC Newsonline, 17 February 2006 Road Blitz on welfare cheats, Press Release, Joe Hockey, 2 March 2006 Taxi Drivers collared at Centrelink roadblocks, John Garnaut, 3 March 2006 Australia mulls fingerpring scans of welfare recipients, Julian Bajkowski, Compterworld, 22 March 2005 Inbound Tour Operators Blitz, press release, Queensland Office of Fair Trading, 30 March 2006
Operation Cinnamon blitzes inbound tour operators on the Gold Coast, Licensing Line News, Queensland Government 113 canaries in eight hours, press release, Victoria Police, 28 April 2006 Operation Rosalind cracks down on cash economy, press release, Department of Human Services, 20 June 2006
Policing Blitz targets Lismore and Nimbin, Will Jackson, Northern Star, 4 July 2006 Nimbin mum ‘felt like a crook’, Will Jackson, Northern Star, 5 July 2006 Centrelink’s fraud blitz tops $1million, press release, Minister for Human Services, 26 July 2006 Canberra looks at Wiki Services, Andrew Colley, The Australian, 1 August 2006 Crime & Prejudice, Christopher Kremmer et al, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 2006
Operation Marcellus and Operation Chorus crackdown on Victoria’s cash economy and welfare fraud, press release, Minister for Human Services, 7 August 2006 Net tightens on cheats, Ben Woodhead, The Australian 8 August 2006 Hatched, matched and dispatched, Ben Woodhead, The Australian, 15 August 2006 Raid in the Suburbs, Brigid O’Connell, Maroondah Leader, 22 August 2006 Access Card for Access Only, Karen Dearne, The Australian, 5 September 2006 Back to a basic card, Karen Dearne, The Australian, 5 September 2006