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Monday, February 09, 2015

The new 'listening' Abbott government should scrap the plan to scrap the Australian Information Commissioner

There are 51 Government bills before the Senate as Parliament today gets down to business for 2015, including the Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill. 

While still on the Bills list the bill is not included in the indicative Senate program for this week.

As currently drafted the bill would abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner by 31 December 2014 - at least that small detail requires amendment. 

As Privacy Commissioner Pilgrim and Australian Human Rights Commission President Triggs say the provisions to transfer the Privacy Commission functions to the Commission are unworkable, that's another.

Then more importantly, other parts of the bill the government hasn't talked much about include the removal  from the scene entirely of the independent monitor, champion and advocate for open, transparent government. And changes that
  • abolish the non-litigious free external merits review process for review of agency and ministerial FOI decisions, mandate internal review for an aggrieved party, and move the external review function exclusively to lawyers' territory at the AAT where the application fee for those who do not qualify for a concession is currently $861;
  • fracture the synergies established only four years ago between FOI, privacy and broader government policy on information management in the digital age; 
  •  place the attorney general in the position of government wide influence on the interpretation and application of the FOI act through authority to issue guidelines in the stead of the independent commissioner.
The move to abolish the office runs counter to public sentiment regarding the importance of transparency and accountability.

A reader tells me that the Australia Institute Exit Poll in Queensland showed 73% said accountability, transparency and trust in government had a large impact on how they voted; half (51%) of those polled heard or read about Tony Fitzgerald who promoted the Fitzgerald Principles during the campaign; and of those, 62% said Mr Fitzgerald’s comments prompted them to give more weight to the need for governments to be open and transparent when they voted.Oh, and almost 9 in 10 (88%) Queensland voters believe that the results from the recent Queensland State election have implications for the Abbott government.

As a Queenslander, Senator Brandis (pictured) surely knows this.

Meanwhile back in Canberra the last we heard, the Australian Information Commissioner  was working from home, the OAIC Canberra office had closed and the Freedom of Information Commissioner was off the books following his appointment to the AAT.

The uncertainty about intentions arises because of silence from the government and this comment from a spokesperson for the Attorney General after  the bill did not come on for debate before the Senate rose for the year on 4 December:
“The Government is committed to implementing its budget measure to streamline arrangements for the exercise of privacy and freedom of information (FOI) functions.”
At a Senate committee hearing the next week Attorney General Senator Brandis claimed the reason the bill wasn't considered in December was simply pressure on time and higher order priorities. (In reality, with Labor and The Greens opposed, the six of eight crossbench votes needed to pass the bill weren't there.) 

Despite plenty of opportunities Senator Brandis said nothing then about reintroducing the bill or the Government's plans. However AGD FAS Matt Minogue said:
The bill reflects the government's intention. If the matter were brought on and progressed and passed in February it would be pointless to gear up the full FOI machinery again. If the bill is not passed, government can make decisions in light of that. But, as I said, the bill reflects the government's expectations. 
My applications to Attorney General's and the OAIC for documents about 'discussions' concerning funding and resource issues post 31 December await a response.

The government in its current mode of rethinking and in line with a renewed commitment to consult, listen and lift its game should see the folly in proceeding with legislation to abolish the office, a move not only out of line with public opinion on the importance of transparency and accountability but out of line also with emerging international best practice, and as reflected in state jurisdictions in Australia as well.

Simply pull the bill, get the OAIC back in running order, and as part of a broader new direction on integrity issues, engage on how and in what way we can improve efficiency and effectiveness in delivering, open transparent and accountable government.

When a Senate committee allowed five working days for submissions during its consideration of the bill in November, after the government itself had talked to no one outside before or after the announcement in May 2014, the advice from just about everyone who had time to respond was 'wrong way, go back.' 

The future of the OAIC will be an important indicator of the extent of new listening and thinking in the 'new' Abbott government.

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