Free and open information? The gag is on us

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”The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”
– GEORGE ORWELL, 1984

‘NO COMMENT,” said the Australian Information Commissioner.

Never accuse the government of lacking a sense of humour. It was brilliant! Here was its new agency, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. An official-looking website claimed this supposed ”OAIC” was part of the Attorney-General’s Department.

Committed to ”open public sector information” it was, according to the mission statement. On and on it went about the integrity and importance of free, public, and open information in government.

”We will champion open government, provide advice and assistance to the public, promote better information management by government … we will have a comprehensive range of functions, including investigating complaints.” Vigorous stuff, but was it too vigorous to be true?

”Government-held information is a national resource,” said this OAIC.

Just the place to go for some information, we thought. We had discovered public information had been disappearing from government databases. Something had to be done. Australian Information Commissioner, here we come.

”No comment,” said the commissioner, via email.

But hang on! Large files of public information had been quietly purged by the corporate regulator, and the central bank and Treasury. National resources, buried, three separate departments. We have a pattern. Here is the proof.

”No comment,” said the email from the communications operative on behalf of the commissioner.

Then the penny dropped.

This was not just another bureaucratic enclave whose sole raison d’etre was self-preservation. It was actually a gag, and a damn fine gag too, an information gag.

”Care for some information about information? Yes sir, you’ve come to the right place, no doubt about that! Just wait there for two weeks, sit tight, we’ll get right back to you!” It was Pythonesque – the Ministry for Silly Pranks, the Bureau for Wasting People’s Time.

The name of the Australian Information Commissioner, they say, is Professor John McMillan. It sounds lifelike. Indeed the name is attached to long and windy statements in the annual report about strong commitment to open government, engagement with government agencies and so forth.

But was he real? Dare we try to speak with this mysterious professor himself? Again, we emailed a question to this elusive figure via a communications officer: ”In the spirit of freedom of Australian information and keeping the public properly informed in the press, are you prepared to actually speak with me on the telephone?”

Alas! Our petitions were met, once again, with a good old fobbing-off. ”Thanks for your email. John often speaks directly to journalists but he is very pressed for time this afternoon as he is leaving for the airport at 4. He asked me to let you know that there is nothing more that he can add on this particular issue without a proper investigation.”

Was it that the professor, if he really existed, had yet to embrace the mobile phone revolution? Or perhaps he was off on one of those nice overseas trips, a fact-finding mission from Canberra to Cancun, say, finding facts about information at the annual international conference for information commissioners in order to commission a steering committee report on a white paper to evaluate the opportunities for a comprehensive range of functions with which to address the challenges of promoting more efficient information management.

The question is serious. It is about information vanishing from public databases: public information about banks using government guarantees, information about government agencies providing favours to liquidators.

Professor McMillan proffered his ”no comment” to the question of exemption orders being purged from the public database of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The documents were relief orders given to liquidators, providing special exemptions from their having to file public accounts. Lots of them.

They disappeared around the time the regulator was about to come under scrutiny by a Senate inquiry into liquidators. The Senate report was damning. Nothing was ever done by ASIC to restore the information to the public database. And as yet there has been zero accountability from the OAIC or any other agency.

To the second issue: large amounts of public information had been purged from the RBA and Treasury websites, without explanation, relating to sovereign guarantees for wholesale bank funding. When questioned, the RBA conceded it took down the information because a bank, or the banks, had requested it. The OAIC did not even respond with a ”no comment”.

”The OAIC looks forward to an energetic year promoting information rights, information policy and the strategic management of personal and public sector information,” said Professor John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner, in this year’s annual report.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.