Office Of The Information Commissioner In Chaos

The Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan AO, has admitted that the Abbott Government’s inability to pass their bill abolishing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has led to him and the Freedom of Information Commissioner, Dr James Popple, working from home.

The Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan AO, has admitted that the Abbott Government’s inability to pass their bill abolishing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has led to him and the Freedom of Information Commissioner, Dr James Popple, working from home.

 

The OAIC is now in limbo. In the Budget, the Government cut all funding to the OAIC beyond the end of the year, but has failed to gain the support of the cross-bench for the legislation actually abolishing the office.

 

Under questioning from Senator Jacinta Collins in Senate Estimates yesterday Professor McMillan confirmed the Canberra office of the OAIC had closed last week, and the two remaining statutory offices will continue to discharge their functions from home offices:

 

PROFESSOR MCMILLAN: The Canberra office was closed last week, so there are now only two officers of the OAIC located in Canberra, myself and the Freedom of Information Commissioner, Dr Popple, and we’re working from established home offices, basically, with the support of the office.

 

In the last Parliamentary sitting week the Abbott Government pulled its bill to abolish the OAIC from the Senate to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

 

The Bill abolishes the only means of independent, no-cost review of FOI decisions by Government.

 

Professor McMillan conceded that the Government’s failure to pass their bill abolishing the office, leaving the Information Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Commissioner to continue their roles into the new year without a budget is an unscripted situation:

 

PROFESSOR MCMILLAN We’ve implemented the budget announcement, but we’re also dealing with the reality that the office continues in existence as we have functions, particularly under the FOI Act, must still be discharged. We’re in discussion with the Department about how those functions will continue to be discharged into the new year. And I can say that I’m remaining in office into the new year and still playing an active role in discharging those functions albeit in a slightly more awkward working environment.

 

Let me say, this is an unanticipated situation because the office was clearly working on the assumption that with the budget expiring for FOI work at the end of December we had to implement that decision and we expected there would be a result on the legislation before the Parliament rose, but this is an unscripted situation we’re dealing with now, and so we’re dealing as best we can to ensure all the statutory functions of the office are discharged. 

 

Under the Government’s bill FOI applicants would be forced to pay more than $800 to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and the Bill would transfer oversight of the FOI system from the Information Commissioner to Senator Brandis’ own department.

 

This attack on the accessibility of FOI came without any consultation and has been criticised by the media, civil society groups, and legal experts.

 

The Government must immediately restore funding to the OAIC.

 

The FOI system is too important to be cut adrift because Senator Brandis is unable to convince the Parliament of the merits of his policy.