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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

AG Brandis not for turning on bid to abolish Office of Australian Information Commissioner

Senator Brandis at Senate Estimates late on Tuesday said he's still aiming to get rid of the independent statutory officer responsible for championing transparent government, an officer who undertakes other important functions including non litigious free review of agency decisions under the FOI act.

This despite the fact that votes from Labor, The Greens and the crossbenches to support the move weren't there last December and its difficult to discern any change in sentiment since. 

Just about everyone outside government who looks into the proposal thinks it's a bad move unsupported by evidence and out of step with trends in good practice thinking about open transparent government in Australia and internationally.

Monday and Tuesday were long days as the Senate Estimates hearing for the Attorney General's portfolio proceeded. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission with the president in the line of fire, proposed national security legislation and a myriad other issues were traversed in the course of many hours of Q and occasional A.

But at 9.48 pm on Tuesday the Office of Australian Information Commissioner finally got the call.

Interest in proceedings had diminished  by this time with Chair Senator McDonald, ALP Senator  Collins and Liberal Democrat Senator Leonhjelm the only committee members left standing. Well sitting to be more precise.

You can read the 24 minute hearing here.

Attorney General Brandis and Matt Minogue of the AGD made it clear that the the bill to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner still before the Senate continues to reflect the government's position; that the office, funded in the 2014-15 budget until 31 December and now with whatever funds were left for general functions from that date and for privacy functions until 30 June must continue to do what it can to carry out its statutory FOI, privacy and digital information policy functions without supplementary funding; and things will stay that way until the bill comes on for consideration and its fate determined. 

When that might be Attorney General Brandis has no idea. It's "a matter for the Manager of Government Business."

The OAIC has closed the Canberra office, the Information Commissioner works from home and the office has seven staff working on FOI matters. A year ago it had 20.
"The office continues to receive inquiries, complaints and IC review applications under the FOI Act, and these are dealt with under arrangements that we have published on our website. FOI matters are currently being handled by a small team in the Sydney office under the supervision of the assistant commissioner for dispute resolution and the Information Commissioner. In summary, FOI complaints are being transferred to the Ombudsman's office; Information Commissioner reviews are being triaged by our office so that where we can expedite a matter we do so; and, for the more complex or voluminous ones, we work with the applicants for these to be referred to the AAT."
With the sword of Damocles hanging over the OAIC since the unexpected announcement in May 2014 of intention to close the office Acting Information Commissioner Pilgrim (the only member of the top echelon not working from home) saluted the staff that have battled on regardless:
in respect of all of our functions, I would personally like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the ongoing commitment and professionalism of the staff in our office, who have continued to work tirelessly during very uncertain times. And I will add that in my 31 years in the Public Service I have not seen a better demonstration of and upholding of the Public Service values.
As for the Attorney General it's nothing to do with him. It's all Labor's fault
if these are perceived to be problems, then these perceived problems would all disappear if the opposition would support the bill so it could be passed...
As I was saying, if the government had an indication from the opposition of what its position was, and if the opposition, which has had plenty of time to consider this, indicated its support for the bill, then the bill could be progressed through the Senate very soon.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I do not think there has been any uncertainty about the opposition's position here. I think the issue is—well, I will ask: is it true that the government has offered crossbenchers a comprehensive review of the FOI system if they support the bill? And why instead will you not conduct that review before you abolish the Information Commissioner?
Senator Brandis: Surely you would not expect me to reveal private conversations that the government might have had with individual Senators. Surely you would not expect that.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I would not be surprised by anything that you might do after today, Senator Brandis. I would not be surprised by anything.
If the government isn't prepared to bring the bill on for debate, maybe Labor, The Greens and the crossbenches should. 

If its voted down the government might finally be shamed into adequately funding our champion of open transparent government despite its distaste for such ideas.

In an answer tabled in response to Question 204 from Senator Collins taken on notice in December about funding for the OAIC beyond December, that didn't get a mention during the hearing, the Department  stated
"The cost implications from the continued operation of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner beyond 1 January 2015 will be determined as part of the Government’s Budget processes."
In light of yesterday's testimony they can't mean 2014-15 budget processes.

AGD appears to be struggling with an answer to another Senator Collins question from last December - the other countries that have an independent FOI commissioner. Q57 remains one of few unanswered two months later. 

Last time I did some digging it was around the 40 mark, although with 100 countries now having an FOI act it might be much higher. 

Oh and they don't have to look far for local adherents to the idea: Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, Northern Territory and the ACT have information or FOI/RTI commissioners. In Tasmania the Ombudsman carries the can while in South Australia the Ombudsman has the review function and the former ombudsman there now Queensland Integrity Commissioner recommended adoption of the FOI commissioner model.

It's clear who is out of step here.

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