THE BLOG

Will Harper Follow Tony Abbott's Lead and Abolish the Information Commissioner?

06/03/2014 12:30 EDT | Updated 08/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be meeting with PM Stephen Harper next week for two days of talks on a number of "global and regional issues, including the status of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, ongoing challenges in Ukraine and the Middle East, and developments in the Asia-Pacific region."

There is another controversial issue which they may well talk about, but you won't see it on the official agenda.

The Abbott government is pushing controversial legislation through the Australian parliament now that would abolish their information commissioner.

That's right, the government of Australia is abolishing their information commissioner.

It's part of a cost cutting move, so the government says, claiming axing the commissioner will save AUS$10.2 million over four years.

The functions of the commissioner will be scattered among a variety of other bodies, including the Ombudsman and the Attorney General.

Of course costs to users will increase. Originally, appeals of government decisions which refused to release information under FOI were at no cost to the requester, but the replacement system the Abbott government is implementing will charge requesters AUS$816 to file an appeal. Most observers expect that having to spend almost a thousand bucks to file an appeal of a government refusal to release information will result in far fewer appeals, and therefore faster response times for the well-heeled requesters who are able to afford to exercise their rights.

Another argument put forward by the Abbott government is that there were long delays in getting appeals through the commissioner's office. Critics of the move counter that by saying the Commissioner has been underfunded, and had no ability to delegate hearings.

So how is this relevant to Canada?

We are currently embroiled in a controversy over the appointment of a new privacy commissioner. Daniel Therrien, a long time senior government lawyer working on issues like immigration and national defence, was apparently chosen instead of the candidates preferred by the government's own selection committee.

This raises serious issues about conflict of interest; Mr. Therrien will be providing oversight to measures he was previously involved in championing on the side of the government. It also raises issues of public confidence in what is supposed to be an office above and beyond political or government influence.

As bad as things are with the privacy commissioner appointment, think what would happen if the federal government was to take a page from the book of Australian PM Tony Abbott and get rid of the Information Commissioner, combining the functions with those of the Privacy Commissioner?

Money could be saved by rolling to the two offices into one. The various provincial commissioners carry out both functions, so why not save money and do the same thing at the federal level the government would argue?

And, they would add, who better to head up the combined office than the new privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien?

He certainly enjoys the confidence of the Harper ™ government, but whether he enjoys the confidence of the Canadian people is a different question entirely.

This is certainly something to watch for, probably buried in the depths of Omnibudget 2015.

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