Victoria an information policy ‘backwater’: privacy commission abolition bill passes

By David Donaldson

Friday May 12, 2017

David Watts
David Watts

He is soon to be out of a job, but David Watts isn’t going down without a fight.

The Victorian privacy and data protection commissioner has hit out at the government over the abolition of his agency, suggesting the information commissioner model it is about to introduce “does not work” and the state is now considered a “backwater” for information policy.

The Victorian parliament passed legislation to create the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner on Thursday morning, in the process abolishing the roles of freedom of information commissioner and commissioner for privacy and data protection.

The new position of information commissioner will take on their responsibilities from July 1, and will be supported by the public access deputy commissioner and the privacy and data protection deputy commissioner.

Watts maintains the new model is a bad idea. He told The Mandarin in a statement:

“It’s sad to see the Victorian government enact a regulatory model that does not work, for reasons it cannot explain, to achieve outcomes it does not know. Victoria used to lead the nation in information policy: now it’s regarded as a backwater.

“The Greens also need to be scrutinised for their flip flop on the legislation. Up until a few weeks ago they were steadfastly opposed to the attack on regulatory independence that this legislation represents. It would be interesting to know the deal that was done.”

The new system is similar to those in place in New South Wales and the Commonwealth. But Watts has long maintained its use in other places is not a good enough reason to reproduce it here, calling the changes “dysfunctional” last year. He argues the changes will weaken oversight roles, as the minister will be able to fire the two deputy commissioners at will; currently those positions are statutory and only removable by the parliament.

Faster response times and better integration

The government’s response was brief, with a spokesperson telling The Mandarin:

“Mr Watts is entitled to his views, but we said that we’d reform Victoria’s freedom of information system to give Victorians the modern system they need and we’re doing just that.”

It has previously defended the choice of the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner model by saying:

“These changes ensure the Victorian community has a single regulator to oversee Victoria’s FOI, public sector privacy and data protection laws, and provide independent advice to government across those closely-related fields. The new body will also help improve the way government manages information.”

The new agency will, for the first time, have the ability to review ministerial and departmental decisions, including under cabinet exemptions. This will make it easier — and cheaper — to seek a review of departmental decisions, currently only attainable under the nuclear option of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The legislation reduces the time to respond to a freedom of information request from 45 days to 30 days, and will reduce the time agencies have to seek VCAT review from 60 days down to 14.

Attorney General Martin Pakula told the parliament the changes would “make government more open and accountable by making it quicker and easier for Victorians to access information”.

“The bill establishes a single entity with responsibility for overseeing Victoria’s FOI and public sector privacy and data protection laws. The OVIC will provide a source of independent strategic advice to government on these closely-related fields and will be well-placed to promote best practice in information access. The OVIC’s establishment is a big step towards creating a fully integrated system for the regulation of information held by government,” he said in his second reading speech.

“In expanding the investigative powers of the OVIC, reducing response time frames and allowing more decisions than ever before to be reviewed, the bill represents a significant increase in the openness and accountability of government.”

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