Long-time government general counsel Leo Hardiman has been appointed as Australia’s Freedom of Information Commissioner, nearly a year after the government began its search.
The federal government has also appointed South Australian senior public servant Simon Froude as director of the National Archives of Australia after a three-month vacancy.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash announced the appointments this week. Mr Hardiman will start as FOI Commissioner on 19 April while Mr Froude will begin a five-year tenure at the Archives from May 23.
The Coalition provided $1 million per year in extra funding to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) for the appointment of an FOI Commissioner in the 2021-22 budget, while the Archives received a $67 million funding lifeline last year.
The job listing for the FOI Commissioner role was made public in June last year, and the role has now been filled more than nine months later.
Mr Hardiman is the former Deputy Chief General Counsel and national leader at the Office of General Counsel at the Australian Government Solicitor. He has advised the Commonwealth on legal issues for more than 30 years and was recognised with a Public Service Medal in 2020.
Mr Hardiman was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of the ACT in 1991 and has held a variety of counsel roles with the Australian Government Solicitor, the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Employment and Workplace relations from 1993 to 2021.
He will work alongside Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk, who had previously filled both roles, despite a statutory requirement that they be separate.
Incoming Archives director Mr Froude joins with more than two-decades public sector records management, including the last six years as director of records management at the South Australian Attorney General’s Department.
He will lead the Archives through a major overhaul after a damning review in 2020 exposed systematic problems which had put records at risk, created a backlog of access requests and opened cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The government has agreed to provide an additional $67 million to the agency to address the most pressing issues but won’t commit to the full $167 million recommended in the review.
The previous Archives director David Fricker, who finished a 10-year stint in December, has warned that without the full funding the agency will “fall off a cliff again”.
The government has also added five new members to the National Archives’ advisory council: Rachel Connors, Anthony Dillon, Alice Spalding, Amy Low, and Suzanne Hampe.
Mr Hardiman, meanwhile, will be met with a significant backlog in FOI review requests when he starts the role, with a 40 per cent increase in these cases in the last year. There has been a 419 per cent increase in FOI complaints to the OAIC since in the 2018 financial year.
This increasing workload and lack of an increase in funding and resourcing led crossbench Senator Rex Patrick to compare the OAIC to a “one-armed juggler”.
The FOI funding boost has already led to the appointment of an SES officer and two support staff.
It was recently revealed that there are 121 unresolved FOI requests on the OAIC’s desk currently, with more than 44 per cent of these having been waiting for more than six months, and just under 30 per cent unresolved for more than a year.
The OAIC has a target of resolving at least 80 per cent of FOI complaints within 12 months.
These delays were criticised by Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe.
“The OAIC, as well as FOI units in all agencies and departments, must have all of the public funding and resourcing that it needs to carry out their critical task in acting as a check and balance to the government,” Senator Thorpe told InnovationAus.com earlier this month.
“I am well aware that stretched staff resources, the pandemic, increasing workloads, and complex legislation is hampering how long requests take. These issues are solved with more resourcing and staffing but also with making sure more government information is proactively revealed more often.
“We need to think of FOI as a critical part of our democracy and our systems of checks and balances on executive government, particularly in the absence of a strong Commonwealth anti-corruption body.”
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