Australian minister backs privacy overhaul

Von Julian Bajkowski

The man in charge of enforcing whole-of-government IT cohesion, Special Minister of State Senator Eric Abetz, has publicly backed calls from Federal Privacy Commissioner Karen Curtis for a wider review of Australia"s privacy laws.

"The existing privacy regime needs to be reviewed to ensure that it supports today"s information environment," Abetz said, adding that current laws were instituted in 1988 when "people used paper to deal with [the] government".

A spokesman for Senator Abetz confirmed the support for a wider privacy review stemmed from a desire within the government to allow agencies and departments to better interoperate and share client information to cut down on red tape.

One known concern within government is that current privacy laws may unintentionally impede reforms in service delivery, particularly as they relate to client and transactional visibility between agency IT infrastructures.

The Health Insurance Commission (responsible for Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme), Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office are all known to have flagged concerns regarding how current privacy laws relate to new policy requirements to interoperate and exchange client details.

"People expect the integrity of their personal information to remain protected, but that this protection should also support the need to be identifiable when individuals want government to know them," the Abetz said.

Meanwhile, both Australia"s federal and eight state and territory governments have finally agreed to speed up work on implementing an interoperable framework for the interchange of electronic health records across Australia.

The Coalition of Australian Governments (formerly known as the Premiers" Conference) meeting in Canberra on Friday June 3 has charged state and Federal health authorities with the task of producing "a plan of action" to be delivered by December 2005.

On the essential question of how the new system will be funded, a communique issued after the meeting stated "that where responsibilities between levels of government need to change, funding arrangements would be adjusted so that funds would follow function" - or that no new funding will flow from the current round of negotiations.