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 Chapter 1 - Secretary's review

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Secretary's review


Roger Wilkins AO

The year 2011-12 was marked by three areas of strategic focus for the Attorney-General's Department. First, the department has played an active role in supporting the Attorney-General as First Law Officer. In many respects, the department is increasingly acting as a central agency on significant whole-of-government legal issues.

Second, the department has undertaken a significant amount of work to ensure Australia's civil justice and national security frameworks meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the increased use of the online environment by Australians in everyday life.

Finally, the department is reviewing business systems and strategic priorities to ensure we are efficient, effective and focussed in delivering the government's priorities. This agenda, set out below, is based on the department's 2012-2015 Strategic Plan, which outlines core aims and plans for the department across the next three years.


This has been a year of major achievement for the department. We have progressed work on nationally significant areas of law reform, including human rights and access to justice, and continued work to build disaster resilience and combat terrorism, organised crime and corruption.

Supporting the Attorney-General as the First Law Officer of the Commonwealth has been one of the significant strategic shifts for the department in 2011-12. The department is working closely and collaboratively with other agencies to provide advice and assistance on significant legal issues arising in the development of government policy. This advice and assistance covers matters including constitutional law, administrative law, criminal law, international law, native title and human rights. We are working on major whole-of-government projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Australian Government response on forced adoptions, two projects which remain significant priorities for the department.

During the year, the department assumed responsibility for the Australian Government's defence of the legal challenges to the plain packaging of tobacco products under the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011. Our work on Tobacco Plain Packaging included responsibility for the conduct of the Commonwealth's successful defence of two constitutional challenges to the legislation in the High Court and leading the government's defence of the ongoing international investment treaty challenge instigated by a Philip Morris subsidiary based in Hong Kong. The department also provided important assistance to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to conduct World Trade Organisation dispute consultations with Ukraine and Honduras.

The department also had a central role in responding to the High Court challenge to the validity of the National School Chaplaincy Program, Williams v Commonwealth [2012] HCA 23 (Williams). On 20 June 2012 the High Court handed down its decision. The Court reinterpreted the scope of the executive power of the Commonwealth, invalidating an agreement and payments made by the Commonwealth under the Chaplaincy Program. In response to the decision, the government introduced the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2012 into the Parliament on 26 June 2012. The Act came into force on 28 June. It amends the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 to provide legislative authority covering over 450 grants and programs, including the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. The department will continue to advise the Attorney-General in relation to the implications of the Williams decision.

The department also implemented the Legal Service Multi-Use List, which commenced on 1 June 2012, to deliver a better and more effective framework for the procurement of legal services across government.

As highlighted earlier, cyber issues have become- and will remain-a significant driver for the department. This work responds to the cyber 'step change' as new information and community technologies have become integral and pervasive tools of daily life and business.

Cyber-related achievements in 2011-12, included:

  • an increase in business for CERT Australia, the national computer emergency response team, in responding to a wide range of cyber attacks on government and business
  • developing the Australian Cybercrime Online Report Network and the Cybercrime Strategic Framework, continued steps to accede to the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime
  • successfully negotiating agreement on 15 July 2011 to an action plan to combat cyber crime at the 2011 Sydney meeting of the Quintet of Attorneys-General from United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia
  • providing significant policy and international legal advice on a range of cyber security matters
  • development of final terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission's review of copyright in the digital economy, issued by the government in June 2012.

The department also implemented one of the most significant micro-economic reforms in recent years when the Personal Property Securities Register commenced operations in January 2012. The design and implementation of a single national online register is the centrepiece of several years of legislative reform that culminated in the Personal Property Securities Act 2009, which changes the way security interests in personal property are registered in Australia.

Further information on the department's role and achievements is outlined in the 2011-12 snapshot in Chapter 2. This snapshot illustrates the department's broad and diverse responsibilities for law and justice, national security and emergency management, and highlights a range of significant achievements in 2011-12.

2012-2015 Strategic Plan

Our people have always been fundamental to this department's strength and success and this year was no exception. Early in 2012 we agreed upon a new strategic plan to 2015. The plan builds on the department's enduring mission of achieving a just and secure society. In the plan, the department has outlined six priorities in achieving the aims of building a safe, secure and resilient Australia and protecting and promoting the rule of law. The six priorities are:

  • supporting the Attorney-General as the First Law Officer of the Commonwealth
  • adapting law and law enforcement in the digital economy
  • promoting equity and efficiency to improve access to justice
  • protecting people's rights
  • combating serious and organised crime and corruption
  • protecting national security and building resilient communities.

Importantly, our staff contributed greatly to the development of the 2012-2015 Strategic Plan. From conception to finalisation, staff collaborated with executive and with each other, generating robust discussions and adding refinements, resulting in a strong and cohesive statement of our direction over the next few years.

Outlook for 2012-13

The department has another challenging agenda of critical work to be delivered in 2012-13. Priorities include continued involvement in the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, coordination of the Commonwealth response to forced adoptions, the passage and implementation of significant amendments to the Privacy Act, the statutory review of the FOI Act, a range of reforms to native title law, a review of national contract law, the consolidation of anti-discrimination laws, the implementation of significant reforms to the funding and administration of Federal courts and tribunals, as well as our continued leadership conducting the Australian Government's case in the international litigation involving whaling and plain packaging of tobacco.

We will also continue our work to finalise the next National Identity Security Strategy, to provide the private sector with access to the Document Verification Service, continue our work to combat organise crime, and deliver an international aid strategy that promotes the rule of law in the region.

In 2011-12, the department commenced a number of business reforms to ensure the department is equipped to deliver its strategic priorities in the tightened fiscal environment that will likely prevail for some years to come. This work will continue and be a significant driver of business reforms in 2012-13. We are streamlining processes within the department, including within our information and communications technology area and also within business administration. Such refinements will help to position us to deliver critical corporate services more effectively and efficiently. We are also working with portfolio agencies to ensure we collectively maximise opportunities for efficiencies.

Our staff have worked with commitment and dedication across a huge range of diverse subject matters that define the Attorney-General's Department. Their hard work is inspiring. I have challenged officers to be critical, strategic and focussed in their work and to think about both developing good policy and how to achieve and implement it. I have asked staff to work collaboratively with their colleagues across this and other portfolios and outside the government. Our staff have responded with great enthusiasm and worked tirelessly to achieve these important outcomes for all Australians.


Our people

Implementing personal property securities reform

modernising Australia's secured transactions law

On 30 January 2012 the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) and the Personal Property Securities Act 2009 (PPSA) came into effect across Australia.

The PPSR project was a major microeconomic reform - requiring the department to deliver complex project management, significant law reform, critical IT design and build and an ongoing communications program. Consequently, the project involved many areas of the department. The overall project was managed by PPSR Branch in Civil Law Division. Information Division was actively involved in the development of the solution at our Symonston and Barton sites. Information Division provided expert technical advice, reviewed all relevant design documentation and built the public-facing website. The PPSR solution continues to be maintained and monitored from the National Operations Centre at Symonston by Information Division staff. Strategic Communications Branch had a key role in delivering the six month long radio and print communications campaign that accompanied the commencement of the Register.

'The PPSR replaces nearly forty Commonwealth, state and territory registers that applied depending on the relevant jurisdiction, the different types of personal property involved and the different legal entities involved', explains Michael Piotrowicz, a Senior Legal Officer in the Business and Information Law Branch. 'Consequently, people had to be familiar with a range of different registers and at least as many laws. The PPSR changes that. As an example there is, for the first time, a single national law and register for security interests in motor vehicles.'

While the PPSR is the public face of the reforms, its purpose is to meet the legislative requirements of the PPSA. 'In many ways the PPSA turns the old law on its head', said Michael. 'Instead of looking at the form a transaction takes, for example financing leases, charges and mortgages, the PPSA looks at what the transaction does. If the substance of a transaction involves the creation of a security interest in personal property, the PPSA will treat it accordingly.'

Approximately 6.1 million registrations were migrated into PPSR. Since the system went live in January 2012, 1.4 million new registrations and 2.7 million searches have been processed.

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