News & Current Affairs
03 October 2014
Freedom of information may cost $800 as Coalition seeks to abolish regulator
Bill is introduced that would distribute commissioner’s roles across other departments
Privacy and Freedom of Information minister Brendan O'Connor (right) speaks to Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan
The federal government has introduced a bill to abolish Australia’s freedom of information watchdog, meaning people would have to pay $800 if they wished to seek tribunal review of government information decisions.
In a move that will wind back significant reforms in Australia’s federal freedom of information framework introduced in 2010, the government has pushed ahead with its plans to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).
The bill would remove an office conceived as the “champion” of freedom of information and privacy, and would largely revert to the pre-2010 framework where complaints about freedom of information matters were heard by the commonwealth ombudsman and appeals went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
Labor and the Greens have previously raised major concerns about this move, saying it would “shut the door on open government”.
Crucially, the bill provides no relief or waivers for the $800 filing fee to make applications to the AAT, which is likely to create a substantial barrier to seeking review of government decisions.
The tribunal is also a far more formal review process, and involves oral arguments put in a court-like setting. Applicants will also be forced to seek internal review of decisions in most cases before going to the tribunal, adding an additional hurdle.
The key changes in the bill include:
- Abolishing the information commissioner and allocating complaint functions to the commonwealth ombudsman. Despite this allocation the ombudsman has been allocated no additional resources.
- Moving the information commissioner’s review functions back to the AAT, which has $800 application fees to hear matters.
- Handing to the attorney general’s department the role of issuing guidelines and compiling an annual review about freedom of information.
- Moving the privacy commissioner into the Australian Human Rights Commission.
It is unclear yet whether the government will gain the support it needs to make the legislative changes to abolish the agency. Labor is expected to oppose the bill, and the Greens have also signalled their strong opposition to abolishing the office.
However, even without legislative changes the OAIC has been allocated no budget funding, and Guardian Australia understands it has largely ceased operations this week.
Many cases before the commissioner remain unresolved, although those who wish to pursue matters to the tribunal as part of the transitional arrangements will not have to pay an additional fee to appeal to the tribunal.