George Brandis continues uncertainty for information commissioner

By Stephen Easton

January 20, 2016

Timothy Pilgrim will continue holding the fort at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner until April 19 at least, the Attorney-General George Brandis has ruled.

In what is becoming a routine ritual, a statement was posted to the OAIC website yesterday — the last day of Pilgrim’s term — reporting that Brandis had given the acting Australian information commissioner another three months:

“Mr Pilgrim will carry out functions and exercise relevant commissioner powers under the Privacy Act 1988, Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010.”

It is the third time Pilgrim’s term as acting information commissioner has been extended for the minimum possible length of time, with the decision only announced in a terse statement added quietly to the OAIC site.

The OAIC had three commissioners up until December 2014, when freedom of information commissioner James Popple left to take up a role on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and was not replaced.

Former information commissioner John McMillan was the next to go. He resigned to take up more stable employment as the New South Wales Ombudsman last July, and was not replaced either.

That left Pilgrim, who had finished his five-year term as privacy commissioner on July 19, the day before McMillan left the OAIC for the final time, as the last commissioner standing.

Needless to say, the office has reduced its functions. The process began with the Commonwealth Ombudsman taking over complaints about freedom of information in November, 2014, when the federal government still hoped to abolish the OAIC completely within the following two months.

The Senate’s refusal to allow the abolition has left the OAIC in a strange position, legally a legitimate part of the government, but with its budget reduced and a government clearly unwilling to appoint new commissioners or provide any kind of certainty about its future.

FOI policy and reporting was transferred to the Attorney-General’s Department and the Canberra office was shut in December, 2014. Some funding was then restored. Pilgrim told a group of lawyers last September:

“This has, naturally, created uncertainty and speculation particularly amongst administrative law and open government advocacy circles about the ability of the OAIC to be effective and perform the important role that it holds for the community in the privacy and FOI spaces.

“So let me be clear about this. Of course, this uncertainty is far from an ideal situation and I hope that soon we will have some clarity about the future of the OAIC.”

It would seem the government does not agree that the office plays an important role for the community, and has chosen only to provide certainty in three-month installments.

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