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Australia – Office Of The Information Commissioner Disbanded As Part Of Budget Reforms.

16 May, 2014

 

Legal News & Analysis – Asia Pacific – Australia – Regulatory & Compliance

 

What You Need To Know

 

  • The Government will disband the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner under budget reforms. The OAIC’s functions will be split between 4 other bodies.
  • Privacy functions will in future be undertaken by the Privacy Commissioner as an independent statutory position within the Australian Human Rights Commission. 
  • External review of Freedom of Information (FOI) decisions will be undertaken by the Administrative Affairs Tribunal.
  • The Commonwealth Ombudsman will have responsibility for handling FOI complaints.
  • The Attorney-General’s Department will be responsible for issuing FOI guidelines, collecting statistics and providing explanatory material on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth).
  • These changes are expected to occur on 1 January 2015.
  • The Government expects to achieve savings of AUD 10.2m over 4 years by establishing these new arrangements.
  • These changes are likely to have significant impacts on these functions. The nature and extent of those impacts are not yet known.

 

Changes To The OAIC

 
The OAIC will be abolished and its functions merged into several government agencies as part of the Government’s widespread changes to the public sector announced in the federal budget last night.

 
The OAIC’s functions will be split between 4 other bodies. Privacy functions will in future be undertaken by the Privacy Commissioner which will be established as a separate statutory office within the Australian Human Rights Commission. FOI functions have been split between 3 separate bodies: External review of Freedom of Information (FOI) decisions will be undertaken by the Administrative Affairs Tribunal, the Commonwealth Ombudsman will have responsibility for handling FOI complaints and the AttorneyGeneral’s Department will be responsible for guidelines, statistics and explanatory material.

 
These steps go further than the recommendations of the Commission of Audit, which recommended only that the two committees sitting under the OAIC be merged together (being the Privacy Advisory Committee and the Information Advisory Committee).

 
The steps are part of widespread changes to the Commonwealth Public Service which the Government says are aimed at improving efficiency and reducing costs. Those changes will include abolition of more than 230 Government programmes. The Government is also in the process of abolishing 70 bodies, boards, committees and councils.

 
In a media release on 13 May 2014, the Attorney General Senator George Brandis indicated that moving the FOI appeals process to the Administrative Affairs Tribunal is part of providing a “one stop shop” for merits review. As part of this, the Migration Review Tribunal, the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Classification Review Board will also be amalgamated with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

 

History And Privacy Functions Of The OAIC

 
The OAIC is an independent statutory agency within the Attorney General’s Department that was established in 2010 to bring together three areas of information management – privacy, FOI and information policy. The head of the OAIC is the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, who is supported by the Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim and the FOI Commissioner, Dr James Popple. The OAIC is made up of approximately 76 staff members and had a 2013/14 budget of AUD 10.62m.

 
The current key privacy responsibilities of the OAIC include:

 

  • dispute resolution (which includes carrying out investigations under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act));
  • regulation and strategy (which includes providing the public and private sectors with advice about the Privacy Act and responding to proposals impacting privacy); and
  • corporate support and communications (which plays a key role in raising community awareness about privacy).

 
The Privacy Commissioner was given enhanced investigative and enforcement powers as part of the changes to the Privacy Act that commenced in March 2014. Under those reforms, civil penalties of up to AUD 1.7m can be imposed on corporations which engage in serious or repeated interferences with privacy. These changes also introduced a single set of Australian Privacy Principles for the private and federal public sectors and the Privacy Commissioner plays in important role in the development of resources for these sectors regarding their compliance obligations under the Privacy Act.

 
According to the OAIC’s submission to the Commission of Audit, the bringing together of FOI, privacy and information policy into a single statutory office in 2010 was largely unique in Australia and overseas and was strongly welcomed by government, business and the community.

 
Prior to the establishment of the OAIC, the Privacy Commissioner was part of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the Human Rights Commission) and had a staff of approximately 60 people.

 
Effect On Administration Of Privacy And Freedom Of Information Legislation

 
These changes are likely to significantly affect the administration of privacy laws and freedom of information laws. The nature and extent of those effects will become clearer as details of the new arrangements become known.

 

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For further information, please contact:

 

Tim Brookes, Partner, Ashurst
tim.brookes@ashurst.com

 
Gordon Hughes, Partner, Ashurst
gordon.hughes@ashurst.com

 
Sophie Dawson, Partner, Ashurst
sophie.dawson@ashurst.com

 
Sophie Hollier, Ashurst
sophie.hollier@ashurst.com

 

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