OPINION

Illustration: Michael Mucci.

If the government was looking for some low-hanging fruit to make its budget savings, it might be tempted to cast a quiet eye over the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Were it do so, however, it might find that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner was so low-hanging as to qualify not as fruit but rather as a root vegetable.

Perusing the annual report for the office, one finds that the commissioners – of which there are three – ”delivered 59 speeches and presentations” for the year to June 2013.

Yet in the same period, the office managed only 89 ”information commissioner review decisions”. Of these, the office decided in favour of other government agencies seeking to keep publicly-funded information away from the public 65 per cent of the time.

So it was that we posed a question to the office. As the head count had averaged 85.27 during the year, and as they had collectively made just 89 decisions, was it reasonable to assume that the rate of decisions equated to roughly one decision per staff member per year?

Not at all, we were advised.

The office has more functions than merely making decisions. Its mandate spans freedom of information, privacy matters and information policy.

Although some staff work in only one of these three areas, many work across two or all three functions. The office estimates that 35 per cent of its resources are directed towards exercising its ”freedom of information functions”.

The real strike rate then is 2.98 decisions per staff member per year.

A cynic could be deluded into thinking, as this rate of decisions was in inverse correlation to the surfeit of speeches, reams of policy advice and the explosion in guidelines, that this was bureaucracy heaven. A cynic, however, would not understand the real demands of agency ”through-put”.

Some 447 freedom of information requests were backed up in the system at year’s end, up 25 per cent on the previous year. Of these, 105 had been filed at the office for longer than 12 months.

However, the legendary Will Matthews FOI request was not among these. Matthews’ Homeric campaign to wrest a straight answer out of government celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is again bogged down in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The AAT is the tribunal of last resort for those appealing a government decision.

But we digress. To its credit, the office does acknowledge a lack of breakneck speed: ”This level of delay has a detrimental effect on the FOI system,” the annual report says.

The blame, however, lies with government. The office has called for an increase in its $10 million funding. It wants more staff, not fewer. The feeling is not mutual, though, as staff turnover for the year was 24.7 per cent, roughly one in four.

Nonetheless, some metrics are on the up. Wages and salaries rose 9 per cent and fees paid to consultants were up 20 per cent.

(Note to self: tactfully refrain from snide comment here.)

One person who has enjoyed the office experience says he was told straight away that it would be at least six months before a case officer would be assigned to his case.

”If you question the delays,” this person said, ”the message is: ‘This is how we roll, everyone has to wait.’

”The office clock is different to the applicant’s clock. When you get a letter you have to respond within two weeks. But when it’s their turn to respond, time stands still. The seasons pass.”

Our beleaguered crusader was finally handed a four-page judgment advising him that the FOI Act did not apply.

”An afternoon’s work in a year,” said he … for no information.

Another metric tells the story: 95 of 419 applicants simply withdrew last year. ”The take away is ‘don’t bother asking’ because you will be put in a queue so long or dealt with so slowly that giving up becomes the only logical course of action,” the weary source said.

Means to an ending

The era of the end of the age of entitlement has ended. Treasurer Joe Hockey boldly declared the end of the age of entitlement in a speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London last April. He was shadow treasurer then.

Although stoutly holding out against a plea from Coca-Cola for a $25 million leg-up for its embattled subsidiary SPC Ardmona – incidentally, $1 million more than Coke chief Terry Davis was paid in the past three years – an exasperated Hockey capitulated and foreshadowed a taxpayer guarantee for Qantas this week.

This kindly act of corporate welfare came hard on the heels of Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos’ dumping of the Future of Financial Advice reforms – giving a landmark leg-up to big banks and super commission hunters and a serious setback for the great unwashed.

In this second epoch of entitlements, Qantas is poised to join the elite too-big-to-fail-club alongside Australia’s mollycoddled banks. As these make up one-third of the ASX by market capitalisation, the government stands behind one-third of the sharemarket.

Labor may well be deemed the champion of entitlements but it would be a race won by a head, not a lap. After all, the Libs ushered in the golden age of entitlements when they sallied forth with their baby bonus – a $5000 handout for the act of procreation, and a handsome boost to the pokies, grog and ciggies sectors to boot.