The intransigence of the Attorney General on the matter of  the abolition of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner continues. This failure to act renders the government’s commitment to open government a hollow promise. In our latest letter, we call on the Attorney General to “restore the funding needed for the OAIC to perform its statutory responsibilities and make appointments to fill the two vacant Commissioner positions.”

To fail to restore this office, in addition to imperiling open government in Australia,  compromises Australia’s capacity to “respond in a genuine and acceptable fashion to the call made earlier this year from the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership for Australia to recommit to its application to join that Partnership”. It also risks Australia being bracketed with Russia as the only applicants for OGP to have dropped out.  Read on, below.


Senator the Hon George Brandis QC

Attorney-General

PO Box 6100
Senate
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Attorney

I refer to previous correspondence in this matter, the most recent being our last detailed letter of 10 July 2015  and letters from your Department dated 8 September and 23 September 2015 replying to our 10 July 2015 letter and to our email forwarding that letter on 7 August 2015 to the then Prime Minister.

The Department letter of 8 September stated –

“I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the Government is aware of your concerns and is working to ensure that the OAIC is able to carry out its essential statutory functions”.

The Department letter of 23 September 2015 stated–

“The Government has noted your concerns. The Attorney-General has replied to your earlier correspondence on this issue and I cannot add anything further to those responses”.

The result to date of our correspondence, therefore, is an absence of a specific response from the Government to the serious concerns we raised in our previous correspondence. Unfortunately, that situation can only tend to add weight to the view that those concerns are well founded.

We note that similar concerns have also been raised, notably directly with you by the International Commission of Jurists through its President the Hon John Dowd AC, and, more recently, publicly, by Laurie Oakes, Sean Parnell and the former Information Commissioner, Professor McMillan.

We have, however, been conscious all along that we are not privy to the full story of the factors and forces that have been at work. For example, while the attempt to abolish the OAIC suggests a government opposed to open government, not long ago the then Minister for Communications, presumably with the support of his colleagues, set up the Digital Transformation Office to work with the international body, the Digital 5, to promote access to information held by the government for the people of Australia. You will recall that the arguments advanced concerned the economic benefits accompanying more open government. More recently, on 14 September 2015, there was the recent significant statement made by that same person as the newly sworn in Prime Minister

“We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield.” (Sydney Morning Herald)

We have also noted your statement on the following day in which you spoke eloquently of the right of the people of Australia to know.

“But it’s – politics is more than making the right decision. Politics is also about bringing the people with you. It’s about explaining to the people why you have made those decisions; why it’s necessary for the country to take a particular path.”

We are encouraged by these statements of intent and purpose. We urge that the Government honour these statements by withdrawing the Bill to abolish the OAIC, restore the funding needed for the OAIC to perform its statutory responsibilities and make appointments to fill the two vacant Commissioner positions.

We suggest that doing so will significantly assist the government consolidate the trust that appears to have been returned to it. To fail to do so will have the opposite effect.

We also suggest that it is critical that this be done as quickly as possible. We refer to its importance not only for the Commonwealth Freedom of Information system and our democratic system of government but also to enable the Government to respond in a genuine and acceptable fashion to the call made earlier this year from the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership for Australia to recommit to its application to join that Partnership. That Committee’s Minutes record

“The case of Australia was highlighted as particularly concerning, and the Steering Committee agreed on next steps and a deadline for Australia to recommit to OGP by the time of the Global Summit.” (See also Freedominfo article)

The deadline the Steering Committee of the OGP set for Australia is for the delivery of its response to the OGP by the time of the OGP Global Summit which opens on 27 October 2015.

The Government’s lengthy delay since its election in 2013 in following up on the OGP membership application has been profoundly embarrassing for Australia. If we fail to persuade the OGP that we are genuinely committed we will find ourselves further embarrassed by being bracketed with Russia – it being the only applicant so far to have dropped out. And this for the country that originally led the way on Freedom of Information when, in 1982, the Fraser Government secured the passage of the Freedom of Information Act.

We have written to raise the OGP issues with the Minister who we believe has been given responsibility in that area, Senator Fifield.   A copy of that letter is enclosed. We will also be writing to the Prime Minister to draw his attention to the connections between, and need to act urgently upon, both matters

Yours Sincerely

 

Hon. Tim Smith QC

Chair, Accountability Round Table