Big changes are afoot for merits review in the federal jurisdiction, with the Federal Parliament’s approval of the Tribunals Amalgamation Act 2014 on 13 May 2015. The Act will create one mega-tribunal, amalgamating the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Migration/Refugee Review Tribunal and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal.
The plan to amalgamate the tribunals is not a new one; on this occasion, the Bill had cross-party support. PIAC hopes that this reform will result in a more straightforward process for merits review with better outcomes for applicants.
The new tribunal will channel the large scope of applications it will receive to specialist divisions. PIAC was pleased to see the Bill amended by the Senate to include an additional specialist division for Freedom of Information. PIAC made this recommendation to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee considering the Bill, which was adopted by Labor Senators in their additional comments on the Committee’s Report.
The addition of a new FOI division recognises the expertise required to determine whether disclosure of government-held information is in the public interest. PIAC believes its inclusion is of great importance given the future of the FOI regime remains uncertain. The Freedom of Information (New Arrangements) Bill 2014, which proposes to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, is at a standstill in the Senate, opposed by a majority. Funding for the Office was reallocated in the 2015-16 budget, but it is clear Government remains committed to its abolition. PIAC believes the loss of the OAIC will be a retrograde step that will undermine transparency and accountability in government. (Read our submission on the FOI Bill here.)
Photo: Flickr/Rae Allen