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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Government champion of open government reduced to working from home

And the government plans at this stage to wait to see what happens to the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill when the Senate returns in February-the bill still "reflects the government's intentions."

No transcript available yet (update-transcript here) but this from the live broadcast of questions in Senate Estimates this morning, mostly asked by Labor's Senator Jacinta Collins:
  • the Canberra office of the Office of Australian Information Commissioner closed last week;
  • the Office continues to operate in 'awkward' circumstances to carry out its statutory functions;
  • the Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan and the Freedom of Information Commissioner Dr Popple are the only remaining Canberra based officers and are working from home;
  • there will at some point only be one as Attorney General Brandis announced that Dr Popple is being appointed to the AAT as a Senior Member;
  • there were 25 Canberra based staff at one stage. Total staffing now entirely Sydney based mainly dealing with privacy related matters but assisting the commissioners with FOI is 62. In July this year it was 79;
  • complaints about FOI administration are all being referred to the Ombudsman;
  • there are 200 plus FOI reviews still before the Office, with new review applications per month down from 55 in May to 21 in November;
  • following the announcement of closure in May, many review applicants were given the option to take a matter to the AAT. Some did, others didn't;
  • the Office since May adopted a more liberal practice regarding this option for media applicants. Not all wish to go down that path;
  • 80% of IC review applications historically are resolved by agreement shortly after receipt;
  • the Office is in discussion with AGD about the funding situation. Currently surplus funds of $1.4 million remain from the six month budget allocation for FOI functions, as does $3.3 million that would have gone to the Human Rights Commission on 1 January to fund relocated privacy commissioner functions remain with the OAIC;
  • the FOI amendment bill reflects government intentions. It is not appropriate to consider fully re-establishing the Office until such time as uncertainty is removed regarding passage of the bill when Parliament resumes in February;
  • when asked, Attorney General Brandis said the bill had not come on for Senate consideration before the adjournment because of the 'heavy legislative schedule' and competing priorities. When it was pointed out that the Senate only dealt with one bill on the last sitting day, he said that was for others to explain. (The unstated real reason of course was to avoid defeat on the floor of the Senate.);
  • the AGD took on notice questions about whether the commissioner model was international best practice or accepted as such by comparable jurisdictions. ( I can save them the trouble, in short it is an international trend, and yes.)
  • in response to questions about international best practice and the Open Government Partnership, AGD said this was 'entirely' a matter for Finance.

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