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Abbott government 'uncomfortable' with freedom of information laws: opposition

The Abbott government is "clearly uncomfortable" with the level of scrutiny that comes with office hence the disbandment of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which oversees freedom of information services and privacy complaints, the opposition says.

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said reforms will remove unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.
Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said reforms will remove unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. Photo: Andrew Meares

As part of the federal budget handed down by Treasurer Joe Hockey on Tuesday night, the Abbott government has removed more than $10 million in funding from privacy and freedom of information services, and abolished the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner provides public access to Commonwealth government information, protects the privacy of personal information, and manages the public’s right of access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

"Senator Brandis and this government are clearly uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny that comes with office," shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said in a statement on Wednesday.

"This cut has come with no consultation and will makes a minor saving at the cost of Australians access to information about their government. Rather than step up and govern in the interests of all Australians, Senator Brandis is running scared from scrutiny of his government."

Senator Brandis is the federal government's Attorney-General.

Information Commissioner John McMillian, who loses his role leading the OAIC, told technology publication iTnews that he only heard about the plans a week ago. The cuts also abolish the Freedom of Information Commissioner position, held by Dr James Popple. The jobs of the more than 80 other staff within the Information Commission are also in danger, the opposition says.

The OAIC's functions will now be shared between four existing agencies: the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), Migration Review Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal, Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Classification Review Board.

Mr McMillian was "disappointed" with the decision. In a statement, he and the other OAIC commissioners drew attention to the office's "substantial achievements".

Under the new arrangements, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which currently sits within the OAIC, will be established as a separate statutory office that will continue to be responsible for the exercise of statutory functions under the Privacy Act and related legislation. It is the chief overseer of privacy and data breaches.

Senator Brandis said the changes would "streamline and simplify" Australia’s external merits review system.

"The reforms will remove unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and deliver an improved and simplified merits review system for all Australians," Senator Brandis said.

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