After two years in limbo, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner can breathe a sigh of relief, with the Turnbull government abandoning Abbott government plans to shut it down.
In the 2014 horror budget, the Abbott government announced plans to shut down the office responsible for privacy investigations and reviewing freedom of information requests and move its functions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Human Rights Commission from January 1, 2015.
The plans stalled in the Senate, with Labor, the Greens and the crossbench refusing to pass legislation to shut down the office.
This forced Attorney-General George Brandis to provide funding to the OAIC to keep the lights on and keep the office functioning until legislation passed to shut it permanently.
When Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott, he promised a more open and transparent government, and late last year he committed Australia to joining the Open Government Partnership global group, focused on transparency in government.
Transparency advocates pointed out that this position might be inconsistent with shutting down the OAIC, but the Attorney-General’s Department insisted that closing the OAIC remained government policy.
But that has all changed. In the 2016-17 budget, the Turnbull government quietly announced it would abandon the plans to shut down the office.
It didn’t make the front page of the press release (after all, this is a “jobs and growth” budget, not a “transparency and open democracy” budget), and it was buried in the portfolio statement for the Attorney-General’s Department:
“The government has decided not to proceed with these proposed changes and the OAIC will have ongoing responsibility for privacy and FOI regulation.”
The government will spend $34 million to keep the office open over the next four years, including $8.1 million in direct funding over the four years, $6.7 million per year from the Human Rights Commission for privacy functions, and $0.6 million per year from the Attorney-General’s Department for FOI functions.
But before the OAIC pops the champagne, the government says it can’t go about giving out information willy nilly; it expects the office to operate in the same way it did while it was under threat of being shut down.
“FOI funding is provided on the basis of the streamlined approach to FOI reviews adopted by the OAIC since the 2014-2015 budget.”
This means that where FoI reviews are deemed too complex for the OAIC to deal with, it is to refer the matter to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, with an associated $800 application fee for people wishing to challenge the outcome of an FOI request.
The other factor to consider is that the office has operating on the smell of an oily rag. Many staff have left the organisation, and many of those remaining work on a part-time basis. To save money during the attempted shut down, one commissioner, John McMillan, was working from home.
Crikey understands that the Canberra office will not be reopened, with the OAIC working out of Sydney. The budget estimates that staffing levels in the OAIC will rise from 72 this financial year to 75 in the next financial year, but the office’s overall budget is lower than before the 2014 budget.