Cease fire at last:
Attorney General Brandis no longer thinks, as he did until May this year at least, that abolishing the OAIC would be a "good economy measure." In response to questions about the change of mind he said "I am not going to comment on decisions in previous financial years that have been reversed. I do not think that is germane.... A policy was made in a previous financial year, essentially for reasons of economy. That decision was revisited more recently and reversed, and I am glad that it was, and I am really delighted that Mr Pilgrim's position has been regularised."
(Comment: Welcome news. But no questions or statements about the damage inflicted by two years of siege that followed the announcement of May 2014 that the government intended to abolish the office.)
No intention of appointing a Freedom of information Commissioner:
Attorney General Brandis said the government intends to leave the position vacant:
"The reason is that there is already, in the absence of a freedom of information commissioner, a comprehensive architecture for freedom of information applications and review of such freedom of information decision-making." "The consolidation into one person, or one officer, of the statutory offices of Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner has occurred after discussion with Mr Pilgrim and with his concurrence. The functions that the Freedom of Information Commissioner could have performed may be carried out by Mr Pilgrim as well, in his capacity as Australian Information Commissioner.Commissioner Pilgrim backed this up:
There was something of a logjam of positions in relation to, essentially, the same policy space, and we are finding, and I think this is evident from Mr Pilgrim's statement, that now that his position has been regularised—I am very happy about that and I want to congratulate him on his reappointment—that the whole issue of government information and privacy can be disposed of at less expense and much more efficiently."
"I have had discussions, primarily with the Attorney-General's Department, about the current structure and I am of the view that both the functions under the FOI Act and the function of Privacy Commissioner can be undertaken by the one position. This is not an uncommon model in other jurisdictions around the world. If I could turn to that momentarily I would say that in the United Kingdom the information commissioner's office is headed up by the information commissioner—one statutory officeholder—and supported by two deputy commissioner positions. I have undertaken to do something similar in our office. I have recently appointed a deputy commissioner position, and Ms Falk has recently been appointed to that position. I also have an assistant commissioner to support me."(Comment: Parliament decided in 2010 that the Office should have three commissioners with defined functions, not two. That legislation remains in force. The decision that two will suffice apparently based on discussions between the commissioner and the Attorney General's department hardly seems in line with executive government responsibility to execute and maintain the laws of the Commonwealth. Whether the decision is based on the rich body of experience in Australia and overseas about models for "an information champion, with a comprehensive range of powers and functions to promote open government, protect information rights and advance information policy" and whether effectiveness as well as efficiency was a consideration is unknown. In this submission to the Hawke review in 2012 then former Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan and then FOI commissioner Popple suggested legislative and other changes that would improve efficiencies and operations. None have been acted upon.)
Coping despite it all: Australian Information Commissioner Pilgrim provided detail of the FOI and privacy work undertaken in 2015-16, said the office is carrying out all FOI functions, that it is "working to ensure that it is managing its role in the most effective and efficient way" and is confident "that the office as we are currently undertaking our functions under both privacy and FOI are delivering some efficiency, certainly, in the area of our regulatory responsibilities."
(Comment: there was no mention of any squeeze on funding which for FOI functions is well below what was considered necessary when the office was established, or of how the two year campaign of attrition has left the office; no mention either of the apparently unfunded information policy functions that have all but disappeared from sight; only a passing reference to 'own motion' FOI investigations of which there have been two in the last six years; nothing about public awareness, leadership and advocacy functions that may be outside the scope of 'regulatory functions' that the commissioner assured are being performed; and as for performance, the KPI of dealing with most matters within 12 months has always struck me as not quite the measure for 'speedy' resolution of review and complaint functions.
While it has had virtually no publicity and wasn't mentioned during the hearing interesting that the Australian National Audit Office has a performance audit underway examining the efficiency and effectiveness of the OAIC. It is due to report in June next year.)
Relevant extracts from the Estimates transcript follow.