Monday, 25 May 2015
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
Conservatives usually like to remind people of the past. The Abbott Liberal government, however, are desperately hoping for an outbreak of collective amnesia: they want us to forget that they tried to sack their own Prime Minister only three months ago; they want us to forget about the 2014 budget; and certainly, they want us to forget about all of the promises that they made to win the 2013 election—all of those promises which they went on to dishonour as soon as they took power.
I want to remind the government of one of those promises. Ahead of the 2013 election, in its little blue pamphlet entitled Our Plan, the coalition promised that if elected it would:
… restore accountability and improve transparency measures.
This, like so many others, is a promise that the Abbott government have broken. Without any review or consultation, the government announced in the 2014 budget that they would abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
The OAIC is Australia's transparency watchdog. It oversees the FOI system, handles complaints and provides a cost-free, independent forum for appealing against government FOI decisions. The importance of such an independent body is obvious to anyone who cares about transparency and accountability in government, and the damage that would be done by the government's plan to abolish the OAIC is clear. The government would return oversight of the FOI system to the Attorney-General's own department, a department whose secretary proudly declared in Senate estimates last year that it took a 'hardball' approach to FOI requests.
The government would make the Administrative Appeals Tribunal the only avenue for appealing against unsatisfactory FOI decisions by government. Instead of the no-cost process offered under the OAIC, anyone who wants to challenge a refusal to release documents under FOI will now have to pay over $800 just to file their appeal in the AAT. Citizens will lose the expert support of the OAIC—a watchdog body designed to hold government to account—and instead have to navigate the full adversarial process of the tribunal themselves. Needless to say, this is a retrograde step from a government with no commitment to transparency or accountability—a government, in fact, which we can now see are deeply committed to secrecy, opacity and obfuscation. It is a proposal that Labor cannot and will not support.
We established the OAIC in fulfilment of our own election promise to improve transparency and accountability ahead of the 2007 election, and we still believe strongly in the need for an independent FOI watchdog. It seems that the Senate crossbench have come to the same view. Embarrassingly, more than a year after the government announced their plan to abolish the OAIC, and withdrew funding from the body, their legislation remains stalled in the Senate. In an incredible display of arrogance, however, the government have simply acted as if their bill has passed. Despite the clear failure in the parliament, in the recent 2015 budget they provided only a small sum of transitional funding to the OAIC to keep it just barely operational.
The OAIC has been stripped of staff; its statutory office holders are scarcely able to perform the responsibilities which the law still imposes on them. Unbelievably, it was revealed in Senate estimates, the Information Commissioner, Professor McMillan, has to work from home. The position of Freedom of Information Commissioner has sat vacant for almost six months now; the government have simply refused to honour their legal obligation to appoint a new office holder to replace Dr Popple, who left the position at the beginning of the year to take up another appointment.
The government have transferred complaint-handling functions to the ombudsman and policy functions to the Attorney-General's Department, despite the law still conferring those functions on the OAIC. This is lawless behaviour, and we should expect better from the Attorney-General, the first law officer of the Commonwealth. It is not for him to decide whether a statutory body is abolished or not. Under our Constitution, that is a power entrusted only to this parliament. He does not get to choose which laws to honour and which to ignore.
It is a sad irony that the government behaves in this way as they seek to abolish a body designed to uphold accountability in government. It is well past time for the government to admit that their attack on the OAIC has failed. The government should either bring their bill on for debate and a vote in the Senate, or uphold the existing law by fully reinstating the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.