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Friday, January 23, 2015

Justinian's take on AG's plan to take down OAIC

Richard Ackland in Justinian - News Desk Special Monday 19 January 2015.
(Republished with permission.)

FOI still wagging

The end of last year saw more hopelessness from AG Soapy Brandis.

He was supposed to guide through the Senate the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill, but failed to do so.

The legislation seeks to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner from January 1. Under the plan announced in the budget the AG's department is to take over the task of "guiding" FOI policy, while the AAT will handle merits reviews -  $861 fee for starters.

The Privacy Commissioner is to be transferred back, as an independent statutory officer, to the government's pet punching bag, the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This jiggery-pokery was said to save $10 million over four years.

The Bill passed the House in October and was sent to a hurried Senate committee inquiry, which reported on November 25.

There was a strong Labor and Greens minority report opposed to the government's changes, with the Coalition Senators waiving it through.

It never looked as though it was going to get the support of six crossbenchers consequently it didn't come on for debate.

Since the budget announcement the FOI side of the OAIC shop has been in wind down
mode. The commission had only been funded until December 31, but because the Bill did not pass it still has statutory responsibilities.

Soapy made no effort to sell the proposal, but probably will have a crack at using his magnificent persuasive powers in February to get the legislation through.

In the meantime, the FOI commissioner Dr James Popple has been appointed to the AAT.

According to Peter Timmins, the lawyer and blogger who follows these things, that leaves FOI law being overseen by one man working from home.

The whole thing is a frightful mess. The Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan told the senate committee:

"There are practical questions, obviously, about the administrative support
that would be needed to discharge functions if the normal budgetary
allocation has expired but the legal reality is that the commission still exists,
the commissioners still continue in office and the functions conferred upon
them by the various acts are still relevantly conferred and are exercisable."

Update: A shorter version appeared in Richard Ackland's Gadfly column in The Saturday Paper 24 January

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