Attorney-General George Brandis refuses to say whether he will appoint a new freedom-of-information commissioner eight months on, amid plans to abolish his office.
Previous FOI commissioner James Popple resigned in January. The Attorney-General’s department told a senate estimates committee this week that it had not started to select a replacement or set up a process to do so.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was set up under the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, as an independent body to manage the public’s access to information and provide advice to government. Three commissioners responsible for freedom of information, privacy and information were appointed to oversee it.
The office would not be drawn on when a new commissioner would be appointed, referring the committee to the department’s response to the question.
It avoided saying whether the law requires the government to appoint a new commissioner, saying only: “The act provides for the position of the Freedom of Information Commissioner.”
The government has introduced a bill to abolish the office, which is not expected to gain enough support to pass the Senate. It has allocated $1.7 million in funding for the office to see it run till the end of the next financial year.
Many of the office’s main jobs have been transferred out of it, with appeals referred to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and complaints now routinely referred to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim is the only one of three former commissioners remaining at the office. Professor John McMillan resigned as the information commissioner in July.
Mr Pilgrim, who has also been acting as information commissioner since then, was this week re-appointed as privacy commissioner until October, “while the Government considers options for the future of the Information Commissioner position.”
Retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Tim Smith said: “By the power of the purse they have managed to achieve a de facto abolition of the OAIC.”
Starving the Office of funding meant it was “unable to carry out its statutory functions contrary to the wishes of the Parliament,” Mr Smith said. “Why is that not a breach of the rule of law and the separation of powers by our executive government?”
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, QC, said “We have a Commonwealth government that is treating the freedom of information system with contempt.”
The government should say what he intended to do after October “and if it can’t get the repeal legislation through Parliament it should formally publicly abandon that attempt and appoint people to fill the two vacant positions … and provide adequate resources to both.”
A spokesman for Senator Brandis would not say when the bill would be moved in the Senate: “The government remains committed to its budget savings measure to abolish the OAIC. Until the bill is passed, the OAIC continues to operate.”
“The OAIC will continue to perform those FOI functions necessary to ensure the ongoing operation of the FOI system.”