Funding cuts trim Privacy Act to a toothless tiger

Once upon a time Australia's largest companies and federal government agencies were racing to comply with the Privacy Act fearing ugly reprisals and reputational ruin. Today, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is a skeleton of its former self, admitting that funding restraints have stripped the watchdog of its auditing capabilities.

At a Senate estimate hearings this month, Deputy Federal Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said 24 audits were undertaken in the 2000/01 financial year compared to seven in the last financial year.

Pilgrim admitted the drop was largely due to funding restraints and the need to allocate resources to tackle the high number of complaints the office receives.

"To be able to exist within the existing budget...we have assessed it is best to place resources in the compliance area," he said, adding that the office will undertake a meagre three audits in the next financial year.

Under its statutory functions, the office can audit federal government agencies for privacy principles and credit providers and credit reporting agencies under the credit provisions act.

While claiming the number of complaints to the office has plateaued, Pilgrim said it still receives about 90 complaints a month.

Last year, he said the office received a total of 1090 complaints with this set to reach 1221 in the current financial year.

Pilgrim said about 65 per cent come from the private sector; the office takes about 82 days to resolve a complaint.

However, according to the office's annual report, during the National Privacy Principles compliance period for the private sector in the 2000/2001 financial year funding reached $4.4 million compared to $3.2 million the previous year.

Funding for the current 2003/2004 financial year is at $4.5 million; however, the office has admitted it is relying on accrual accounting to cope with expenses that have reached $4.5 million.

The current Federal Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton will leave the position in April after voicing concerns in September about a lack of resources to investigate a spiralling number of complaints.

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