Australian Government Seeks to Close Information Office

16 May 2014

The four-year-old Office of Australian Information Commissioner would be abolished Jan. 1, 2015, under a plan put forward by the Abbott government.

The changes would save $10.2 million over four years, according to the proposal, described in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Open and Shut blog.

Information commissioner John McMillan, privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim and freedom of information commissioner James Popple released a joint statement which described the consequences without commentary:

The Privacy Act will continue to be administered by the Privacy Commissioner and supporting staff from an office based in Sydney. The FOI Act will be administered jointly: by the Attorney?General’s Department (advice, guidelines, annual reporting), the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (merits review) and the Commonwealth Ombudsman (complaints). The information policy advice function currently discharged by the OAIC will cease.

The statement went on to list accomplishments of the office and its finances. The OAIC now operates with A$10.6 million and about 69 staff members. The workload has steadily increased in most areas over the last two years by between 10?20%, the statement said, and the completion rate has continued to improve.

Attorney General George Brandis said in a statement: “The complex and multilevel merits review system for FOI matters has contributed to significant processing delays. Simplifying and streamlining FOI review processes by transferring these functions from the OAIC to the AAT will improve administrative efficiencies and reduce the burden on FOI applicants.”

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said in a statement on May 14, “This cut has come with no consultation and will makes a minor saving at the cost of Australians access to information about their government.”

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon was quoted as saying, “The Coalition government is the only winner out of this retrograde budget cut that will make it easier for them to operate with minimal scrutiny.”

Open and Shut blogger Peter Timmins wrote in part:

All pretty retrograde stuff. The changes wipe the review model adopted in the reform package of 2010, and it’s back to where things used to be and we know they didn’t work properly then. Not to mention the gaps: in effect no one has the leadership function so essential to the culture change talked about for 30 years but still a long, long way off and going in the wrong direction under this government; and no mention also of the what happens regarding the role the OAIC played in moving towards a government wide information policy.

He also wrote:

The OAIC disappointed in a number of respects, particularly the long delay in review decisions and the failure to really get stuck into those not playing fair and square, but it was under resourced and never had a minister who provided the leadership essential to back the message the government was serious about transparency and accountability, presuming it was.

More powers, more resources and strong ministerial backing were what was needed, not the return to the status quo ante 2009. 

Another commentator foresaw higher fees. Johan Lidberg, a senior lecturer at Monash University wrote:

 The cost to appeal a FOI decision could increase significantly. The fee to lodge an appeal with the AAT is currently A$816. Some of the FOI reviews could be exempt from the fee and part of the cost will be refundable if you win the appeal, but in most cases the fee will increase. Add to this the cost of legal representation needed before the AAT and most FOI applicants will probably think twice before they appeal.

 Looking ahead, Timmins wrote under the headline “OAIC-it ain’t over until it’s over.” He said:

Thinking about the government’s plans to abolish the OAIC and reorganise and reallocate functions, this is going to require substantial changes to legislation. The Senate is unlikely to be a pushover, but the power of the purse strings may be enough to trump all in the final analysis. 



Be Sociable, Share!


Filed under: What's New