The public office, public trust principle
..an open, inclusive economic system backed by open, political inclusive institutions – that is the best guarantor of success”
David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Information is held by government officials in public trust for the Australian people, not for the government. It is the people’s information. For a well-functioning democracy, governments must resist the temptation to abuse their power over the information entrusted to them and ensure that it is exercised in the public interest.
The OAIC plays a crucial role in ensuring the Federal government upholds the democratic principals of openness and transparency but government cuts to funding and attempts to abolish the OAIC have seriously undermined its capacity to perform this role.
In 2010 the OAIC was established to reform the then failing FOI system. This independent body was given the power to review decisions, consider complaints and promote open government.
The 2013 Hawke inquiry found good progress but, while acknowledging the OAIC’s “financial constraints”, considered it “too early” to assess future needs. But resistance in government has persisted with recent examples of senior officials arguing for more exemptions to be provided to limit the disclosure of information.
In 2014, the Government moved to abolish the OAIC. Blocked by the Senate, it achieved de facto abolition of its FOI role by reducing its funding and transferring all its FOI functions elsewhere other than the review of government decisions refusing access to information. That was “streamlined”, by enabling reviews to be conducted by the AAT. The funds expended within the OAIC on FOI work were halved in 2014 – 15. They have not been increased since then.
Privacy became its principal function. In addition, over most of that period, an Acting Information Commissioner has been appointed on 3-month terms to perform the duties of all three statutory Commissioner positions. This has handicapped the OAIC and compromised its independence. The last appointment occurred in April.
In May, all FOI functions were officially returned by Government to the OAIC but not its capacity to perform them. Funding was not materially increased and future Budget appropriations will reduce. Staff are to be increased by only three and there is still only one Acting Commissioner.
There are also other serious ongoing consequences to be addressed:
- The Government’s contravention of the fundamental constitutional principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law, and
- Australia’s breaches of its obligations as a member of the Open Government Partnership.