Senate Inquiry On New Data Sharing Legislation Hands Down Report


Staff Writer

An Australian Government Senate Committee has handed down its recommendations following an inquiry into longstanding proposed legislation to reform how the government shares information it holds about Australian citizens.

The Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee examined the proposed Data Availability and Transparency Bill (2020) and the Data Availability and Transparency (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020.

If legislated, the two bills will shake up and streamline how government data on Australians is shared between government departments, agencies, researchers and the private sector. However, several parliamentarians raised privacy concerns, and the bills got referred to the committee for examination in early February.

The committee has now come back with three recommendations that broadly recommended tightening privacy and oversight provisions. Firstly, the committee recommended that parliament is provided with assurances regarding ongoing oversight by security agencies of data sharing agreements and potential security risks.

Secondly, any possible national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector get taken into account when developing any additional data codes. Finally, the committee recommended that consideration gets given to whether amendments could be made to the bill regarding privacy protections, particularly concerning de-identifying personal data that may be provided under the bill’s data-sharing scheme.

The key piece of legislation, the Data Availability and Transparency Bill (2020), seeks to set up a new data-sharing scheme that will serve as a ‘pathway and regulatory framework’ for sharing public sector data for three permitted purposes. Those purposes are service delivery, informing policy and programs, and research and development.

Subject to new safeguards and enforcement mechanisms, the Office of the National Data Commissioner (ONDC) says;

“The bill establishes a scheme for controlled access to public sector data, which leverages existing frameworks for specific aspects of data management, rather than repeating or replacing them.

“This approach allows the data-sharing scheme to fit neatly into the existing architecture of the national data system, minimising duplication and ensuring tailored protections get preserved.”

However, the opposition has confirmed they will vote against the bills, citing risks to Australian’s privacy and an overall lack of oversight. Opposition Senators Kimberley Kitching and Matt O’Sullivan sat on the inquiry and wrote a dissenting report. They called the proposed bills “deeply flawed.”

The opposition acknowledged the benefits the data provides. They also note the need for a scheme to manage and regulate public data effectively. But the two Senators said they were not confident the data would be safe under the bill’s provisions.

“Interactions with governments create thousands of points of data, many of them deeply sensitive and personal,” the dissenting report said. “The regulatory structure designed to oversee the scheme is weak, poorly designed, and subject to abuse. The bill violates community standards about the protection of private data.”

But with the Senate inquiry only recommending improvements to privacy and oversight, the government is likely to try to pass the proposed legislation with crossbench support.