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Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim's $731,140 gift to taxpayers

The information watchdog can't perform all three of his roles as well as they should be done.

Long-time privacy watchdog Timothy Pilgrim was appointed Information Commissioner last week, a role he'd acted in for more than a year. He certainly deserves the honour. However, he doesn't deserve the government's treatment of him and his office.

The Informant has chronicled over two years the Coalition's failed attempts to destroy that office (unsurprisingly, it couldn't convince the Senate to abolish the freedom of information watchdog). Malcolm Turnbull finally relented earlier this year, restoring some of the office's funding that Tony Abbott had stripped.

Yet Pilgrim has been left to fill three statutory roles for the price of one: Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner and (acting) FOI Commissioner. This is despite the relevant legislation clearly intending that the jobs be held by different people.

The good news is that Pilgrim is saving us money. The three officers' salary packages total $1,175,050, while Pilgrim receives just $443,910. That's a $731,140 gift to taxpayers. (Thanks, Tim!)

The bad news is that, whatever Pilgrim's abilities, none of his roles will be performed as effectively as they should be. The office was designed in such a way that the at-times competing objectives of privacy and FOI law would have separate champions, balanced by the Information Commissioner's oversight. That useful tension no longer exists – and the public is the loser. Alas, the cost is likely far greater than Pilgrim's gift.

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Who vets this agency's offences?

The Canberra Times reported last week on a widely practised, yet illegal, form of discrimination: government agencies are routinely ignoring merit laws by insisting that job applicants already hold a security clearance. It's an understandable offence: they do it to avoid the ever-lengthening waiting times for security vetting. On a single day early last month, we found 43 clearly illegal ads for APS jobs, and a further eight that said the agency would (unlawfully) give preference to applicants who held a clearance.

Yet nothing appears to have changed. A cursory search on Monday yielded a similar number of ads that breach the Public Service Act. If the Public Service Commission can't police this, it might as well save the public some money (just like Pilgrim) and junk the whole concept of a merit protection commissioner.

Ironically, one offender is the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency itself, which has used recruiting firms to reject candidates who lack the clearances it provides. If there was ever a sign that the vetting process is broken ...

Supreme secrets

Forgive us a final grumble about this affair, but it stinks to the core and we feel compelled to note it again. One-hundred-and-thirty days have passed since The Australian newspaper appeared to breach an ACT Supreme Court order to suppress a report of substantial interest to Canberrans. And 130 days have passed without the court referring the matter to police – while insisting that The Canberra Times upholds its non-publication order.

The "secret" report, written by KPMG, was evidence in a case pitting ex-ACT Brumbies boss Michael Jones against the University of Canberra. It apparently raises serious questions about how millions of Canberra ratepayers' dollars were spent subsidising the sale of the Brumbies' former training site. It was circulated widely in the rugby community and was even the subject of debate in the Legislative Assembly. Yet the court agreed, for whatever reason, to prevent the public from accessing it.

The parties settled last week and it now seems the suppression order will stay in place indefinitely. So while the stink of this saga hangs over the city – and the ACT election – next week's votes will be informed only by innuendo and half-stories, rather than facts and open debate. We don't know what's worse: our top court's retreat from the principle of open justice, or its gutless reluctance to police its own orders.

A tax worth voting for

Nonetheless, putting aside murky issues like the Brumbies' land sale (and there are too many such cases at present), the Informant encourages Canberrans to vote next week for candidates who support land taxes. At present, that means supporting Labor, Greens and some independent candidates.

The ACT's tax reform program has seen household rates rise and other, less-visible taxes fall or disappear entirely. It has damaged Labor politically and will sway some voters against the government. Yet it's too important to scrap.

Land-value taxes are fair: they lift the revenue burden off a handful of home buyers each year and spread the weight across the community. Nor can land taxes be dodged, no matter what tricks accountants try to employ. They improve housing affordability. Abolishing stamp duty also makes it cheaper for Canberrans to move into housing that better suits them as they age.

It's the kind of evidence-based policy that every Australian government should pursue, but only one government has been bold enough to do it. And if that single brave experiment fails, it will set the case for such reform back decades.

Most of the other election issues pale in comparison to the ACT's fiscal health, which affects everything the government does. Land-value taxes are unequivocally in the public interest. Whoever governs this city next month must not abandon the progress Canberra has already made.

Fairer sex gets fairer share

Finally, let's acknowledge and praise some progress. The latest APS Statistical Bulletin shows women fill a greater-than-ever share of senior roles. The proportion of senior executives who are women was 43.3 per cent as of June 30. By contrast, the Bureau of Statistics' latest Gender Indicators report shows only 28.6 per cent of comparable executives in the private sector are women.

This is not to say that women no longer face cultural barriers and hidden biases in the APS; they do, particularly in some agencies. But well done to everyone – and it was the work of many – who paved the way for these results.

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