Melbourne water apologises for breaching privacy of protester

August 24, 2011 |

In today’s Age, Melbourne Water apologises for spying on pipeline protest farmer, there is a very interesting article about Melbourne Water breaching a protester’s privacy.  It states:

A year-long legal battle ended yesterday when the water authority agreed to publish an apology to 63-year-old Yea farmer Jan Beer, a lead campaigner against the north-south pipeline. The apology will be published on its website and in two regional Victorian newspapers next month.

The apology says in part: ”Melbourne Water acknowledges that the collection of her personal information has caused Mrs Beer to feel that she was being continually monitored and to feel that her privacy had been invaded. Melbourne Water apologises to Mrs Beer for any distress experienced by her in relation to its collection of her personal information.”

The Sunday Age last year revealed Melbourne Water had spied on, filmed and photographed Mrs Beer, as well as tailed her while driving. Her activities were tracked, noted and shared with police over two years. The information came to light after Melbourne Water released 88 documents to Mrs Beer under freedom of information laws.

The information collected included notes on Mrs Beer’s protest activities and her movements away from pipeline sites, such as a talk she gave to students at a local wetland.

In the apology – which the parties have agreed will appear by mid-September – Melbourne Water said it believed the information was collected to ensure the safety and the security of its pipeline workforce and the public. But the apology also acknowledges ”the rights of interested community members to peacefully protest and to take an interest in ensuring that public projects are environmentally compliant without their rights to privacy being infringed”.
As I understand it Ms Beer took action in VCAT under the Information Privacy Act.  She also used the FOI Act.  On the facts as I understand them she would have a very difficult time succeeding under a breach of confidence act for an infringement of her privacy.  She may have a cause of action under a statutory right of privacy, if the ALRC or NSWLRC model was in place.  And this is where a statutory right of privacy comes into its own.  The VCAT procoess is far more cumbersome and produces a very limited result for a significant breach one’s rights as a law abiding citizen.
These are types of situations where the debate about a right to privacy should be focused, not a complaint by the media that they will be hamstrung.  And there should be a real debate.

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