BILL ROWLINGS. Pilgrim passages, tatters returns.

‘Open and transparent’ could scarcely be claimed as the style of Australian executive and bureaucratic rule. But even by our poor standards, the saga of the Office of the Information Commissioner has been a disaster of huge proportions.

Timothy Pilgrim’s resignation from his dual role as Australian privacy and information commissioner from 24 March leaves the government’s privacy-data breach-FOI governance system in tatters…again.

Attorney-General Christian Porter announced in February that he would soon begin the selection process to replace Pilgrim. His announcement means the AG and the AG’s Department have done no forward planning for the exit.

Pilgrim’s announcement was made two days out from the start of the Commonwealth’s new mandatory data breach notification scheme and soon after he registered a new privacy code that applies specifically to federal government agencies.

The whole information-privacy-data breach area has been in chaos for more than seven years. In fact, FOI, openness and transparency in government began to wither when Labor’s Senator John Faulkner – its champion in the first decade of the 21st century – stepped down as Special Minister of State in 2009.

Pilgrim started as the privacy commissioner in 2010, when the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was a much better-resourced body with a separate commissioner for FOI, James Popple, and an overarching information commissioner, John McMillan.

Then suddenly the Abbott government announced it would abolish the agency completely. But the government could not get the necessary legislation through the Senate, so the ridiculous situation emerged where information supremo McMillan was working from his suburban Canberra home to keep a semi-closed operation functioning on the smell of a sump-dregs rag.

When McMillan became acting NSW Ombudsman in 2015, Pilgrim was left as chief bailer of an important governance ship of state that shamefully the government cared little about. He was rewarded with a PSM for plugging leaks, caulking the rotting decks and keeping up the appearance that there actually was a positive national policy for privacy management and personal data control, and open, transparent freedom of information processes.

Now even the appearance has gone.

Bill Rowlings is CEO of Civil Liberties Australia.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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