news The Government today revealed it had decided to abandon its approach of dismantling the Office of the Information Commissioner and would provide total funding of $37 million over four years to retain its Freedom of Information and privacy functions, although it will pull a sizable chunk of funding from the Australian Human Rights Commission to do so.
The OAIC was created a number of years ago from the merger of existing micro-agencies deaing with reviews of Freedom of Information matters, as well as national privacy issues. It had been one of the few appeal mechanisms for Freedom of Information requests, which are often knocked back by departments and agencies.
However, the Abbott and Turnbull Governments essentially sought to disband the OAIC after the 2013 Federal Election, seeing it as unnecessary and seeking to have its functions passed on to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Attorney-General’s Department.
The Government defunded the OAIC but was unable to disband it entirely, due to the refusal of the Senate (dominated by Labor and the Greens) to pass enabling legislation. As a result, a farcical situation has existed for some time, whereby OAIC officers have been conducting their work from their own homes in the absence of funding.
In today’s Budget, the Government finally gave up on its attempts to dismantle the OAIC and funded it instead.
“The Government has decided not to proceed with the new arrangements for privacy and Freedom of Information (FOI) regulation, including the proposed changes to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner,” said Attorney-General George Brandis and Justice Minister Michael Keenan in a joint statement.
“Accordingly, the OAIC will receive ongoing funding of $37 million over four years to continue its privacy and FOI functions. FOI funding is provided on the basis of the streamlined approach to FOI reviews adopted by the OAIC since the 2014-15 Budget.”
The funding was further broken down in Budget documents, which revealed that the Government would directly provide $8.1 million over four years to continue the operations of the OAIC.
However, a substantial amount of the funding will be redirected from another agency.
“Additionally, $6.7 million per year for privacy functions will be transferred to the OAIC from the Australian Human Rights Commission, and $0.6 million per year will be transferred from the Attorney-General’s Department for Freedom of Information functions,” the Budget stated.
It is not clear what impact the funding cut will have on the Australian Human Rights Commission, which itself has often found itself at odds with the Government over the past several years on issues such as the humane treatment of asylum seekers.
There is both good and bad news here.
On the positive side, it is tremendously heartening that the Government has finally given up on its multi-year war against the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. The privacy and FOI appeal functions which this office provides are absolutely essential to maintaining the robust nature of our democracy.
The fact that the various officeholders in the OAIC continued their work from home, despite being completely defunded, is testament to this need, and I applaud them for their perseverance. Their integrity has paid off, and now their offices will continue, with substantial government funding.
However, this may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for those of us who have a strong interest in human rights. It appears the Government has justified much of the OAIC’s returned funding through taking a large slice out of the Australian Human Rights Commission. This will be viewed as revenge for the AHRC’s continued advocacy on the issue of humane treatment of asylum seekers.
I strongly hope the cuts do not have a substantial impact on the AHRC’s operations, although I suspect that I do so in vain.
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