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Estimates: Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee (Office of the Australian Information Commissioner)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 29 May 2014

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Professor McMillan, Dr Popple and Mr Pilgrim, thank you very much for your work. Professor McMillan, is it correct that OAIC will lose 63.3 full-time equivalent staff; is that the correct number?

Mr Pilgram : I am sorry; 'will lose'—

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Pilgram : I am sorry, Senator, but I am having trouble hearing.

Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to get the exact number of full-time equivalent staff.

Mr Pilgram : Yes. The budget-funded positions in the office at the moment are 63.3 staff. The budget papers estimate a saving of 23 positions. Of course, it is proposed that there will be a new office of the information commissioner and the staff numbers for that, as I understand it, have not yet been completely clarified. Also, there will be a transfer of an estimated six staff positions to the Attorney-General's Department for functions that will be discharged there and one staff position to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Senator RHIANNON: Could I just get an idea of how many will be lost to the work? Some are going to be transferred. How many in total will be transferred—just so we can get an idea of what we are going to lose?

Prof. McMillan : It is probably better that detailed questions about staff positions and savings are directed to the department which has responsibility for those aspects of the budget.

Senator RHIANNON: Could the department just give us a figure on the number lost? I am short on time and I am just after a clear figure, if that is possible.

Mr Minogue : It is very difficult to give a precise figure, and to some extent it would be unnecessary and imprecise to do so. Essentially, this is a process that we will be working through with the commission in relation to both the privacy ongoing functions and some of the FOI functions that will come to the department. We will be working with the commission's office to do the best we can. But, yes, there will be some implications for staff; there is no doubt.

Senator RHIANNON: So, Attorney-General, is this your broken promise moment, considering that prior to the election you gave a clear commitment—to directly quote from your website—to restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you? Then your Prime Minister, when he was opposition leader, on 9 August said, 'The last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people.' How can removing any number of staff, when the workload in this area is increasing, assist the public to readily understand the workings of government?

Senator Brandis: Senator, if I may say so, that is the sort of absurd assertion I would expect from a former member of the Communist Party.

Senator RHIANNON: On a point of order—

Senator Brandis: No promises have been broken.

Senator RHIANNON: Attorney-General, you specialise in insulting people when you are hard up for an argument to actually answer a question.

CHAIR: What is your point of order?

Senator RHIANNON: The point of order is relevance.

CHAIR: Do you claim to have been insulted or misdescribed or something?

Senator RHIANNON: No. Do not show your bias as well, Mr Chair.

Senator Brandis: I am just explaining your background. You used to be proud of it, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: I have always been very open about my background. My point is that you use insults when you are hard up for an answer.

Senator Brandis: You may say that it is an insult, but you used to be proud to be a communist.

Senator RHIANNON: The point of order is relevance. Could you draw him back to the question so he will answer it and not waste time, and then you will rule that my time has finished?

CHAIR: Senator Brandis, if the senator's former membership of the Communist Party is relevant to an answer to her question, it is in order—

Senator Brandis: I am just, by way of—

CHAIR: But I cannot really see it myself.

Senator Brandis: No. Mr Chairman, I am, just by way of preamble, exposing the grossness of the hypocrisy of somebody like Senator Rhiannon pretending to be interested in transparency and open government. That being said, the answer to your question, Senator Rhiannon is this: no, it is not a broken promise. The government is committed to transparency and openness and these measures serve those objectives. The budget measures have been designed and crafted to ensure that the transparency and openness of the system remains but that the system can be administered more efficiently.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Professor McMillan, or maybe this is for Mr Pilgrim; it is about privacy complaints. I understand that privacy complaints—I saw these figures on your website—are expected to increase by 100 per cent and the total workload of OAIC is expected to increase by up to 20 per cent. How do you see this workload being managed under the new arrangements? Again, I might need to go to Mr Wilkins or somebody else; but could you comment, please.

Mr Pilgram : To the extent of commenting on the numbers, I will just give you two figures. The figures for the financial year 2012-13: we received 1,496 privacy complaints. In the year to date, 2013-14, we have received approximately 3,900 complaints. So there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints coming through to the office. In terms of how we are approaching those, we obviously have processes for dealing with assessing the complaints and looking at the ones that need to be dealt with immediately and triaging those, and we are looking at processes for streamlining how we will respond to those.

As part of the new privacy reforms that came in on 12 March, we now have mechanisms by which we can formally recognise external dispute resolution bodies that will be able to handle privacy complaints in certain areas, such as the credit provisions under the act. We are going to be meeting with those external dispute resolution bodies to work with them on their taking up some of the complaints that come through in particular sectors. In terms of the ongoing impact of the changes, they are matters that we are in discussion with the department on at the moment.

Senator RHIANNON: I also noticed in the budget papers that, from 2016-17 onwards, disbanding the OAIC will save the government $10.4 million a year. However, the agencies who will now be responsible for those functions will only contribute an extra $6.9 million a year from 2016-17 to fund these extra functions. How will this shortfall impact on OAIC's former functions? The department?

Mr Minogue : The total saving is identified as $10.2 million over four years. In relation to the ongoing functions, either through the Privacy Commissioner or the merits review functions through the AAT, all of those functions coming to the department, the savings are the net of the ongoing resourcing for those functions and the functions no longer performed.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you identify what functions will be done perhaps not so thoroughly? How you are going to manage that workload, considering that we have just been given evidence about the increasing workload?

Mr Minogue : I do not think it is done 'not so thoroughly' or otherwise. I think, as the attorney mentioned, the purpose behind the budget measures and the decision government made was to reduce duplication and increase efficiency.

Senator RHIANNON: You are quite seriously saying that, with fewer resources, you can be more efficient in dealing with this increased workload. Is that a summary? I am not trying to verbal you; I am just—

Senator Brandis: That is what efficiencies are about, Senator Rhiannon. I know that the Eastern bloc did not operate according to that system, but that is the way capitalist economies operate. Even in the public sector, we can have efficiencies. In fact, one of the reasons there is an efficiency dividend, a program of both the previous government and the current government, is to encourage agencies to do more better with less.

Senator RHIANNON: But isn't the key issue the efficiencies—

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I have given you—

Senator RHIANNON: This is my last question. Isn't the issue—

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I have given you my time and we must now move on to the Federal Court and the Federal Circuit Court. Thank you very much, Professor McMillan.

Senator RHIANNON: This is shocking.

CHAIR: I had questions to ask, but I gave you my time, Senator Rhiannon. It is time now for the next session, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. I do not set these times; I just try to administer them.

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