Government floundering over Information Commission

By Harley Dennett

Friday August 21, 2015

In a statement today, Attorney General George Brandis announced the re-appointment of Tim Pilgrim (above, centre) to his role as Australian privacy commissioner for 12 months.

Pilgrim is the last commissioner standing at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, where he currently performs the duties of all three commissioners: Australian information commissioner, freedom of information commissioner and Australian privacy commissioner.

The government’s attempts to abolish the OAIC — announced in its first budget back in May 2014 — have stalled after its first bill found insufficient support in the Senate to pass. However, funding for the body has been winding down while it continues to fulfil its legislated obligations.

Freedom of information commissioner James Popple (above, left) resigned in December 2014 to join the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and has not been replaced.

Australian information commissioner Professor John McMillan (above, right) left in July this year to become NSW Ombudsman by special temporary arrangement.

Around the same time, Pilgrim’s term was due to expire and he was appointed as temporary AIC for three months, “while the government considers options for the future of the Information Commissioner position.”

However, the statement from Brandis today had nothing to say about the future of that role, the OAIC, or the reasons behind the reappointment of Pilgrim to the more junior of the two roles when he is currently acting in the senior role.

“As Privacy Commissioner, Mr Pilgrim has developed good working relationship with the businesses community, consumer groups and Australian Government agencies in building awareness of privacy rights and obligations. An example was his extensive consultation with industry and consumer groups before the 2014 amendments to the Privacy Act commenced, and his continued focus afterwards on working with businesses to implement the changes to the Act.

“Mr Pilgrim has also worked at the international level to ensure that Australia is equipped to deal with global privacy challenges particularly through cross border cooperation on privacy matters.

“In the January 2015 Australia day Honour’s List, Mr Pilgrim was awarded a Public Service Medal for ‘outstanding public service in the development and implementation of major reforms to the Privacy Act.’

“I look forward to Mr Pilgrim’s continued contribution in this role.”

The reappointment of Pilgrim delays the collapse of the freedom of information review process until October 2016. There is believed to be a considerable backlog of applications from agencies and individuals.

The Mandarin has also reported concerns about whether the government is meeting its constitutional obligation to properly resource the agency to fulfill its statutory functions, an issue that has been the subject of two opinion pieces by a group of former justices of the Victorian Supreme Court.

After the problems arising from the premature de-funding, the budget for next financial year will provide roughly $1.7 million for the FOI function and $6.8 million for the privacy function. By contrast, during the 2012-13 financial year, the OAIC spent $5 million on fulfilling its FOI functions, and just over $15 million in total.

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