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Monday, March 07, 2011

NSW privacy commissioner appointment disappears in pre-election melee

Some might say just typical of the current NSW Government's form on privacy issues for much of the last decade. In October last year the aforementioned NSW Attorney General John Hatzistergos (left) sought expressions of interest by 8 November for appointment as part time commissioner for a fixed term of up to five years. Legislative changes last year also gave a parliamentary committee power to veto any appointment. Parliament was prorogued in December, over three months before the election, as the Government sought to avoid examination of the sale of some electricity assets. Who knows what stage was reached in the process then. As the Government went into caretaker mode last Friday, John McAteer continued as Acting Commissioner.

This history of the privacy commissioner position from the Australian Privacy Foundation:
The first Commissioner was Chris Puplick (1999-mid 2003, but very part-time, in parallel with his primary role as Anti-Discrimination Commissioner). Puplick resigned from the job in May 2003 following an allegation of misconduct. The full-time Deputy Privacy Commissioner post was held by Catherine O'Riordan (1999-2001) and Anna Johnston (2001-04). Since then it has been vacant, and either abolished or unfunded. During 2003-04, the then Carr Labor Government went on a vendetta to dis-establish the Privacy Commission and have its work swallowed up by the Ombudsman's office. The APF actively opposed the idea, and the Upper House rejected the Government's attempt.
John Dickie was nominally Privacy Commissioner 2003-07, but Acting and on successive contracts that were not only part-time but short-term as well. He was almost invisible. Ken Taylor served 2008-09. He was also largely invisible on privacy matters, and was then appointed to oversee the Government's changes to the FOI arrangements. Taylor took sick leave from November 2009, resulting in Maureen Tangney acting from then until 30 June 2010, and then John McAteer (the Principal Privacy Officer) being given successive, short-term acting appointments from 1 July 2010.
During 2010, the Office of the Information Commissioner was established, with oversight responsibilities in relation to FOI and open government. The first Commissioner is Deirdre O'Donnell.
With effect from 1 Jan 2011, Information and Privacy Commission (NSW IPC) has been formed, with Privacy NSW disestablished and its functions absorbed within NSW IPC. The OIC component comprises a full-time Commissioner and 20 staff, whereas Privacy NSW has a part-time Commissioner (vacant), still no full-time Deputy Commissioner, and a Principal Privacy Officer currently exercising the Commissioner's powers and with only 4 other staff-members. It therefore seems reasonable to infer that the NSW IPC's privacy role will be swamped by its FOI functions.
The one glimmer of hope that meaningful oversight arrangements might emerge from the rubble is that the Privacy Commissioner's post was advertised in October 2010, albeit still on a part-time basis, but with an upbeat and positive statement describing the role, including the stated expectation that the appointee would "operate as an independent advocate/champion in relation to privacy issues"

The glimmer of hope might now be the change of government coming on 26 March.

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