John McMillan has criticised the decision to axe, and when that failed, defund, the federal agency he once led.
He also describes the public commitment to freedom of information in politics as “rank hypocrisy” and says the Attorney-General’s Department lacks understanding of information policy.
The former Australian information commissioner left the role to become the New South Wales ombudsman earlier this year, leaving privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim to run all three commissioner roles at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
“I think it’s terrible that the head of treasury and the head of the public service commission feel comfortable in speaking out and saying FOI has gone too far, without having to explain what is meant by it’s gone too far.”
“You get all these mists thrown around, about you can’t have frank briefing at senior levels. FOI protects any document that needs protection. The exemptions are quite adequate to protect any document, and the IC review decisions make it plain.”
But the claims about the efficiency of the OAIC, which limited their power to refuse FOI requests, were often factually wrong, McMillan claims.
“It was inevitable that a body like this would encounter issues early on in changing culture, developing efficient procedures, working out the most efficient methods. We had just achieved that … so all of that experience is lost.
“I’ve no doubt it’s all to do with two things; irritation with FOI and that the portfolio department is the attorney general’s department, which never understood information policy, which never understood transformational change on information issues and so found the whole thing an irritant.
“… I’ve never had a frank explanation as to where the initiative or idea came from. Anybody to whom I’ve ever spoken says it came as a big surprise to them that government would abolish the OAIC. Nobody is really ever prepared to go on the public record for a frank discussion about it.”
The OAIC can’t continue, McMillan says, as it can’t maintain staff morale: “It’s very hard to recruit really talented people on an ongoing basis when they don’t know whether the office is going to disappear from one month to the next.”
He continues to favour the existing OAIC model, but acknowledges a workable plan could go in a different direction. Even the government that initially created the OAIC wasn’t really committed:
“It’s all led by the tone at the top. When we started we had wonderful support at senior levels of government, so you got a real culture change. But after about a year or so it became clear – and this is during Labor – that government doesn’t like FOI and it’s acceptable, it’s culturally, acceptable to thwart FOI requests.
“Except in the early days, when the initiative was being led by John Faulkner and Joe Ludwig, the tone was as antagonistic to FOI as it has been under the present government.”
“There’s a lot of political horse-playing around who is the most secretive government. In my experience there was a lack of enthusiasm from both sides of politics. Senior people in government just don’t like FOI.”