Privacy office faces ‘remarkable’ drop in funding

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal opposition has questioned a “remarkable” drop in support for the national privacy office in the coming years, with the organisation left waiting on whether government funding will be renewed or if it will face a near-50 per cent cut in resourcing.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) was provided $23.565 million in 2020-21 in this month’s federal budget, a slight decrease from the previous year.

There are concerns among privacy and civil rights advocates that the office is “severely underfunded”, despite an increased workload and an increasingly prominent role.

Imbalance: The federal privacy office is scratching around for resources

But the OAIC is also facing a potentially significant funding cut in the forward estimates. The budget outlined a small drop to $21.108 million in funding for the 2021-22 financial year, but a significant drop to $13.361 million the following year. This is set to remain stable in 2023-24 at $13.564 million.

This drop in funding is due to the $25.1 million over three years provided to the OAIC in the 2019 budget for privacy complaints coming to an end.

At a Senate Estimates hearing on Thursday, Australian Information Commissioner Angelene Falk confirmed the office is yet to get a funding guarantee for this going forward, but this may be a part of a review of the Privacy Act that is slated to take place soon.

“It will be a matter I continue to work through with the government. As part of that we will be looking at the legislative framework and also my functions and powers in relation to the Privacy Act resourcing that’s required to deliver on any reforms that will be part of the discussions. That needs to occur at that time,” Ms Falk told the Senators.

“That will have a significant impact on the functions of the agency and accordingly I will be in discussions with government well ahead of that time with efforts to ensure that the increased funding received in recent years is continued,” she said.

“There’s a review of the Privacy Act which is imminent and I think this is an opportunity to think about the type of regulator that’s needed in the digital age.”

Another aspect of the apparent funding drop is an OAIC Memorandum of Understanding with the Australian Digital Health Agency for its function overseeing the My Health Record scheme, worth more than $2 million, which is renewed yearly.

Currently, the OAIC will experience a significant funding cut in the 2022-23 financial year unless it is provided further cash.

Labor’s Senator Kim Carr said this is a “remarkable drop” and the government should provide a funding guarantee to the OAIC.

“Given the amount of money in this budget I’m surprised you have to wait to have that funding renewed in the period out to 2022-23,” Senator Carr said.

Even the OAIC’s current funding levels are inadequate for it to properly complete its important roles, Digital Rights Watch’s Lucie Krahulcova said.

“The government is severely underfunding a critical institution. The ACCC’s report on digital platforms released earlier this year outlined that fundamental changes need to be made on the way privacy and data protection are treated in Australia,” Ms Krahulcova told InnovationAus earlier this month.

“The budget allocation for the OAIC does not suggest that the government will be taking those recommendations seriously. The amount of remote work and study this year has increased our connection to a lot of technologies and really highlighted Australians’ fear about how their privacy is treated – the budget allocation remains deaf to those concerns.”

At the estimates hearing, Ms Falk also confirmed that its first audit of the government’s COVIDSafe app is set to be completed next month. There is also another audit currently underway, with three more expected to take place next year.

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