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Monday, May 11, 2015

Budget 2015-16: time to right the wrong of last year's attempt to abolish information commissioner

All eyes on Canberra and the budget on Tuesday night to see if 'good policy' and 'fairness' extend to ending the government attempt to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner. 

And for signs after 18 months of mostly war on this front that the government can connect the dots to move ahead not backwards on open transparent and accountable government.

The lack of evidence in support  of abolishing the OAIC was clear from the time the announcement was made a year ago, the government has produced none since and there is no majority in the Senate to pass the bill necessary to achieve its purpose.

 The Public Eye in The Canberra Times 7 April put it succinctly:
FOI farce drags on
What follows is not new news, but we note it precisely because there has been a despairing lack of news. It's been almost a year since the Abbott government announced it would abolish its information watchdog, and three months since its regular funding was scheduled to end. Nothing has happened. Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan's Canberra office has closed and most staff have left, but he continues to fulfil his statutory obligation to oversee freedom of information law, mostly from his home.

He was on leave when his office last fronted up to an estimates hearing, so Privacy Commissioner Tim Pilgrim had to explain that McMillan and a handful of staff were "triaging" FOI reviews to ration out their scant resources. "At the moment, we are working on the basis that we have, if I can put it this way, cash reserves to be able to maintain the status quo as we have it now, through for some months to come," Pilgrim said.

Attorney-General's Department executive Matt Minogue said last year that, if the bill to wind up McMillan's office and give his powers to other agencies did not gain Senate backing in February, "the government can make a decision in light of that". Time is well up. If there's no crossbench support for the bill, end the farce now and reinstate the office.
The Accountability Roundtable is among those looking forward to Attorney General Brandis getting things back on even keel. 

So too I imagine the thirty-five information commissioners from 25 countries meeting in Santiago, Chile last month who “expressed concern” regarding challenges to the right to information including the lack of adequate funding, support and maintenance of the organs of supervision. (Thanks

Open government in the digital age
The budget will include funding for the Digital Transformation Office in the Communications portfolio.

Minister Turnbull in a speech last week spoke about our big picture intentions:
We should aim to become the world's leading digital economy.....
Governments across the world are at varying stages of their digital transformations so the DTO has an opportunity to collaborate with the world’s leading digital economies. These include, but are by no means limited to the D5 - Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea and the UK, as well as state and local governments in Australia. I have spoken to Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister for Innovation, and we’re on a unity ticket on the need to collaborate. We will also make myGov available to all other state and local governments at no cost, other than those associated with the initial onboarding.
The DTO, and all other parts of government for that matter, should never be arrogant enough to believe that Canberra has all the answers.

The movers and shakers in this field are all members of the Open Government Partnership including all nine countries ranked above Australia (10th) in the World Wide Web Foundation Open Government Index 2015-UK, US, Sweden, France, New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada, Norway and Denmark.
A government serious about such things must quit dithering about joining and fully participating in the OGP. We were asked to join almost four years ago but Finance Minister Cormann has said for over a year the Abbott government is still 'considering.' 

In an opinion piece in The Australian recently Minister Turnbull said Australia would join the D5.

The D5 Charter (pdf) at 3.5 requires members to belong to the OGP. 

Signs in the budget of reaffirmation of the importance of the OAIC and a commitment to participation in the OGP would be timely welcome indications that the dots on the way to more open transparent government have been joined.

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