The Freedom of Information Amendment (New Arrangements) Bill 2014 (Cth), which is currently before the Senate, proposes to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and streamline the way Federal privacy and freedom of information (FOI) matters are administered and dealt with by the Federal Government.

Currently, privacy and FOI matters are handled by the OAIC, an independent statutory agency which operates within the Attorney-General’s portfolio.

Summary of proposed changes

Under the 2014-2015 Budget measure, Smaller Government – Privacy and Freedom of Information functions – new arrangements, released in May 2014, the Federal Government proposed changes to the privacy and FOI regimes to streamline processes to achieve savings of around $10.2 million.  

The Bill seeks to achieve this goal by:

  • abolishing the OAIC;
  • establishing the role of an Australian Privacy Commissioner, an independent statutory office holder within the Australian Human Rights Commission, rather than within the OAIC;
  • giving the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) sole jurisdiction for external merits review (currently, as well as seeking internal review of an FOI decision, a person may apply directly to the Australian Information Commissioner, who will undertake an external review of the decision.  A person then has an appeal right to the AAT);
  • providing for a compulsory internal review of FOI decisions, before a person has an appeal right to the AAT;
  • giving the Attorney-General responsibility for FOI guidelines, collection of FOI statistics and the annual report on the operation of the FOI Act; and
  • giving the Commonwealth Ombudsman sole responsibility for investigating FOI complaints (however, this function shifted to the Ombudsman on 1 November 2014).

The abolition of the OAIC would effectively restore the privacy and FOI regimes to the system of management that was in operation before the introduction of the OAIC on 1 November 2010.

When will the proposed privacy and FOI changes take effect?

In a report tabled on 25 November 2014, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee recommended that the Bill be passed, subject to minor amendment.

As Parliament is not due to sit again until February 2015, it appears that, if passed by the Senate, the proposed changes (which were due to come into effect on 1 January 2015 if the Bill was passed before close of Parliamentary sittings for 2014) will not come into effect until some time after February 2015.