Pilgrim details state of play at OAIC

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Pilgrim details state of play at OAIC
Timothy Pilgrim

Warns businesses not to take advantage of agency's uncertain future.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is forging ahead despite the government's efforts to close it down, and will continue to agitate on behalf of consumer's rights despite its uncertain future, according to Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim.

His remarks to the The Law Society of New South Wales Government Solicitors Conference this week mark a rare foray into public commentary on the OAIC's shaky future.

Pilgrim was re-hired into the role - starting from October 19 - late last month after his five-year term lapsed in mid-July. Pilgrim is also currently serving as interim Information Commissioner following John McMillan's departure and while the government decides what to do with the role.

Currently, Pilgrim is the sole officer filling three statutory positions within the OAIC.

The government last year announced its intention to shut down the office by January this year as part of its 'smaller government' agenda and in an effort to save $10.2 million over four years.

It planned to move FOI complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, FOI policy and reporting to the Attorney-General's Department, FOI decision reviews to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and privacy into a new Office of the Australian Privacy Commissioner.

In anticipation of the agency's closure within the year, the government cut more than a third from the OAIC's funding in the 2014 budget.

But it failed to get the legislation required to dissolve the agency through the Senate before the end of 2014 sitting, meaning the organisation has continued to limp along in limbo.

The government was therefore forced to provide $1.7 million over the next year to keep the office going until it could formalise the OAIC's closure by getting the legislation passed.

"This has, naturally, created uncertainty and speculation particularly amongst administrative law and open government advocacy circles about the ability of the OAIC to be effective and perform the important role that it holds for the community in the privacy and FOI spaces," Pilgrim said this week.

He said the OAIC had been forced to start helping staff to find new jobs either within or outside the public service, transfer FOI policy and reporting functions to the AGD, and shut down its Canberra premises.

"Of course, this uncertainty is far from an ideal situation and I hope that soon we will have some clarity about the future of the OAIC," Pilgrim said.

But the OAIC had managed to achieved some "quite remarkable" things despite the uncertainty around its future, Pilgrim said.

He said the OAIC was close to resolving its legacy backlog of FOI review decisions, had managed a 50 percent increase in voluntary data breach notifications, undertook 12 privacy assessments involving 94 entities, and successfully closed around two-thirds of the 2838 privacy complaints it received.

Don't take advantage

Pilgrim warned that he would be on the lookout for any entity hoping to take advantage of the OAIC's uncertain future.

"Any agency or organisation thinking that they can ‘game the system’ because of the uncertainty about the future of the OAIC better look at what we have done over the last 12 months and think again. We are actively using the powers available to us to uphold these important community rights," he said.

"Regardless of what may occur over the months ahead, this should be a heads up or .. a warning to those entities covered by both the Privacy Act and, while we have the jurisdiction, the FOI Act, that we will actively be fulfilling the mandate we have to ensure the community’s rights are upheld under both statutes."

He said it was intended that the OAIC would continue to actively deliver on its functions pending the government's ability to get the OAIC dissolution legislation through the Senate.

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