National

Freedom of information law overseen by one man working from home

The inaugural (and likely the last permanent) federal information commissioner Professor John McMillan, who resigned in June.
The inaugural (and likely the last permanent) federal information commissioner Professor John McMillan, who resigned in June. Photo: Supplied

Australia's federal freedom of information laws will be overseen by a single officer working largely from home.

Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan laughed off the bizarre situation on Thursday, telling a parliamentary hearing that "in an age of technology, it's possible" to cope with his "slightly more awkward working environment".

The government's lack of control of the Senate meant it could not pass legislation last week that would have formally wound up Professor McMillan's office and given his powers to other agencies.

The information commission, which oversees privacy and FOI laws and tries to encourage public servants to be less secretive, has been phasing out its Canberra operations in recent months and closed its ACT office last week, where 25 people used to work.

The Coalition announced in May it would abolish the watchdog by the end of this year and distribute its work to other agencies, saying the changes would "remove unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and deliver an improved and simplified merits review system".

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However, Labor and the Greens strongly oppose the move, saying the office protects people's ability to access information without the steep costs of going to court.

It is understood most crossbenchers also opposed the bill, which was withdrawn from the Senate's busy agenda last week before it was voted on.

The legislative delay left the office's two remaining Canberra-based staff, Professor McMillan and FOI commissioner James Popple, with a large workload they must complete: about 200 reviews of FOI decisions.

However, Dr Popple is leaving to take up a job with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the office's 60 Sydney-based staff focus almost entirely on privacy law, not FOI issues.

Professor McMillan told the Senate he would find a way to cope.

"We expected there would be a result on the legislation before the Parliament arose ... But this is an unscripted situation … and we're dealing as best we can to ensure that the statutory functions of the office are discharged."

An Attorney-General's Department senior executive, Matt Minogue, would not say whether the government would give Professor McMillan's office more money to help him carry out his legal duties next year.

"If the matter was brought on and progressed and passed [by the Senate] in February, it would be pointless to gear up the full FOI machinery again. If the bill isn't passed, the government can make a decision in light of that," Mr Minogue said.

The office has begun to refer all complaints about FOI to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, though the ombudsman can only make recommendations, not binding decisions.