The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) will be disbanded by 1 January 2015 as a result of the Australian Government’s Budget decision to split privacy and Freedom of Information across a number of other bodies. This decision will certainly affect the administration of the new privacy laws, the most significant changes to the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (“Privacy Act”) since its introduction.

The Functions of the OAIC

The OAIC was established in 2010 to advance the development of consistent workable information policy across all government agencies, by bringing together:

  • Privacy functions under the Privacy Act and other legislation;
  • Freedom of Information functions (including oversight of the operation of Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (“FOI Act”) and review of decisions); and
  • Government Information policy.

Information Commissioner John McMillan, FOI Commissioner James Popple and Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim have issued a post Budget statement highlighting the achievements of the OAIC during its four years in existence. It was estimated that their workload had steadily increased over the last two years by between 10-20%. Notably, the OAIC estimates privacy complaints are set to increase by over 100% in 2013-2014. With substantial cuts to funding and the reallocation of functions to other agencies there is uncertainty as to how privacy complaints will be managed in the wake of the Privacy Act amendments.

The OAIC took a proactive approach to all functions, reporting that they had conducted 91 own motion investigations and 10 audits into privacy, resolved 1191 FOI applications for Information Commissioner review and audited the information management policies of 191 Australian Government Agencies.

What has changed?

The functions of the OAIC will now be divided across four existing bodies:

  • Privacy functions will be undertaken by the Privacy Commissioner acting in an independent statutory position within the Australian Human Rights Commission;
  • Freedom of Information complaints will be handled by the Commonwealth Ombudsman;
  • External merits review of Freedom of Information decisions will be undertaken by the Administrative Affairs Tribunal; and
  • The Attorney-General’s Department will be responsible for the issuing of  Freedom  of  Information guidelines, collection of statistics and provision of explanatory material into the operation of the Freedom of Information legislation.

The Budget provides that through these changes, the Government will achieve savings of $10.2 million over four years. The savings will be “redirected by the Government to repair the Budget and fund policy priorities”.

How will this affect the administration of Privacy and Freedom of Information?

Proactive investigation and action by the bodies involved in the new arrangements will likely be limited by funding and agency capacity. The OAIC have issued a statement expressing their commitment to a smooth transition of the arrangements leading up to 1 January 2015. Whilst the impacts of this disbandment remain unclear, it is obvious that the administration of the Privacy Act and FOI Act will be affected. The extent of the impacts will become clearer when further details of the new arrangements are released.