Reworked data-sharing legislation returns to Parliament with Labor’s support

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Controversial legislation paving the way for a significant expansion in the sharing of public sector data will return to Parliament this week with significant amendments and newfound support from the Opposition.

The Data Availability and Transparency bill has stalled in Parliament since it was introduced to the lower house in December 2020.

The legislation offers a “new path” for the sharing of data held by the federal government currently blocked by secrecy provisions, and facilitates the establishment of a National Data Commissioner.

Data sharing
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The bill has been in the works for nearly four years and is the bedrock of the government’s data strategy and the establishment of the Commissioner.

The legislation has not moved since Labor labelled it “deeply flawed” and signalled it would vote against it in April last year.

But the bill has been listed for debate in the House of Representatives this week, the first sittings days for 2022.

InnovationAus understands the data-sharing legislation to be debated this week will be significantly amended from the version last seen at the end of 2020, with these changes winning the support of the Opposition.

This means the data-sharing scheme is likely to be approved by Parliament before the upcoming federal election.

The reforms will apply to all data held by public sector agencies and departments, and will see increased sharing of identifiable data. Under the previous version of the bill, consent will be required unless it is “unreasonable or impracticable to obtain”.

The previous proposal for the scheme also allowed for data to be shared for research and development reasons with industry, research and others in the private sector.

Under amendments to its own legislation the government will move in Parliament, the data-sharing scheme will now only be for Australian organisations, not those in foreign jurisdictions, and data will not be shared with the private sector.

There will also be a review of the scheme in three years, and a sunset clause inserted in five years.

With these changes, the legislation is likely to have bipartisan support and sail through Parliament.

A spokesperson for the government reaffirmed the Coalition’s commitment to the bill.

“The government intends to progress the Data Availability and Transparency Bill, within the context of the government’s broader legislative priorities,” a government spokesperson told InnovationAus.

The Opposition has previously been very critical of the government’s legislation, saying it was “weak, poorly designed and subject to abuse” in a Senate report last year.

“While there is a clear need for an effective scheme for the management and regulation of public data, and clear public benefits from using such data, the measures outlined in this bill do not represent a proportionate means of achieving that objective,” the Opposition said.

“This bill violates community standards about the protection of private data and, if passed, would erode public trust in the government’s ability to protect the privacy of its citizens.”

A new mechanism for the sharing of public sector data was first recommended by the Productivity Commissioner in 2017, and the Coalition has been consulting on such a scheme since mid-2018.

This process has already cost $20.5 million, while a further $11.1 million has been set aside over four years from 2020 for implementation of the scheme.

The delays in passing the legislation have pumped the brakes on the government’s whole-of-government data strategy, and has meant it has been unable to appoint a full National Data Commissioner as a statutory office holder.

Gayle Milnes was last year announced as the new Commissioner, and is serving in a designate capacity until the bill is passed.

A number of civil and digital rights groups slammed the legislation when it was unveiled more than a year ago.

The New South Wales Civil Liberties Council said it was “fundamentally flawed and violates community expectations”, and that it could enable “the robodebt scenario in an accelerated form”.

Digital Rights Watch also said that the data-sharing scheme “threatens to further erode” legislative privacy protections.

It was revealed last year that the government had agreed to only three of 13 recommendations from a privacy impact assessment of its bill. This assessment found that the new data sharing scheme had risks that were “potentially high”, with a “very wide” range of data in play.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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