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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Abolish the OAIC? Let the crossbenchers know what you think.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee is due to report on the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill this Tuesday 25 November during the second last sitting week of the year. 

Labor and The Greens maintain their opposition to the bill so the Government needs votes in support from six of the eight crossbenchers if the bill is to pass.

I've written to each of them as below. If you like me think abolishing the Office of Australian Information Commissioner is a giant step backwards for the open, transparent and accountable government cause, see also the contact details of the eight senators who will determine the matter. A phone call, tweet (to the only one with a Twitter account), or email letting them know your views might help.


I urge you to vote to reject the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill.

Around 25000 FOI applications are made each year. While media use of FOI makes the news, the vast majority of users are individuals seeking access to documents held by Veterans Affairs, Human Services and Immigration.

This backward step on transparency and accountability will affect all Australians not just those responsible for close to one million applications since FOI commenced thirty years ago.

The bill removes from the scene entirely the independent monitor, champion and advocate for more open, transparent government; abolishes the non-litigious free external merits review process for review of agency and ministerial FOI decisions, and moves this function exclusively to lawyers' territory at the AAT where the application fee for those who do not qualify for a concession is $861; fractures the synergies established only four years ago between FOI, privacy and broader policy on information management in the digital age; and places the attorney general in the position of government wide influence through the issue of guidelines in the stead of the independent commissioner.

The government claims the move will 'reduce the burden' on FOI applicants and asserts savings of $10.4 million will be achieved over four years. Neither claim is substantiated.

In the short period available to make a submission to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, the following joined me in urging the committee to recommend against a vote for the bill:

Transparency International Australia
Accountability Round Table
Electronic Frontiers Australia  
Queensland Integrity Commissioner
Open Australia Foundation
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Australian Privacy Foundation
NSW Council for Civil Liberties
Liberty Victoria
Pirate Party Australia
Guardian Australia

Dr David Solomon who chaired the groundbreaking review of the Queensland FOI act in 2007-2008, whose submission raises important human rights and constitutional issues;
Associate Professor Moira Paterson Monash University Faculty of Law Director, Graduate Studies; author of Freedom of Information and Privacy in Australia: Government and Information in the Modern State (LexisNexis, 2005) and FOI Editor of the Australian Administrative Law Service.
Dr Johan Lidberg, Monash University. Senior Lecturer in Journalism in the School of School of Media, Film and Journalism, who has undertaken international comparative research into FOI practical functionality for the last 13 years.
Public Law and Policy Research Unit, The University of Adelaide. Submission written by Dr Gabrielle Appleby, Deputy Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Dr Judith Bannister, Senior Lecturer, Adelaide Law School and Anna Olijnyk, Lecturer, Adelaide Law School
Assistant Professor Bruce Baer Arnold, University of Canberra School of Law    
Craig Thomler, social media and Government 2.0 advocate and practitioner.
Megan Carter, Consultant with 33 years experience in this field in Australia and overseas.
George Samuel.
Andrew Donnellan.

The Law Council of Australia submitted that the matter should be delayed for three months to permit full examination of the proposal.

The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission told the committee the proposal in its current form to relocate the Privacy Commissioner is unworkable.

There are many other options to improve the operation of the FOI system and to look into possible cost savings and efficiencies.The conduct of some agencies adds considerably to cost to the taxpayer.

The framework that the bill would abolish is basically similar to the framework in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, and has been proposed to the SA government in a special report by the former ombudsman earlier this year.

The information commissioner model is accepted international best practice , now in place in over 40 countries.

Labor and The Greens have indicated their intention to vote against the bill.

In the interests of open, transparent and accountable government, I hope the crossbenchers will do likewise.

I would welcome the opportunity to talk to you or a member of your staff and to provide additional information if that would be useful.

Thank you in anticipation.

Peter Timmins
Open and Shut

Crossbench Contact Details

Senator Day
(02) 6277 3373
twitter @senatorbobday

Senator Madigan
(02) 6277 3471

twitter @SenJJMadigan

Senator Xenophon
(02) 6277 3552

twitter @nick_Xenophon
Senator Leonhjelm
(02) 6277 3054


Senator Lazarus
(02) 6277 3204

Senator Wang
(02) 6277 3843

Senator Muir
(02) 6277 3040

Senator Lambie
(02) 6277 3063

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