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Monday, September 24, 2012

NSW Parliament should do better on openness

Shadow NSW minister for transport Penny Sharpe may have been the only politician in Australia to have said anything about the International Day of Democracy and the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness when she spoke in NSW Parliament last week-text extracted below.

While noting all sorts of things being done elsewhere to open parliament to the people, and the fact that the state parliaments have not been helpful to Open Australia (see this 2009 post on that), Ms Sharpe's only comment on things close to home was:
 "Here in New South Wales we can and we should do better."

For starters by publishing online details of payments to or on behalf of parliamentarians at present buried away in annual reports, travel, and the interests register, particularly gifts and secondary sources of income for those who have other jobs. Publishing on-line papers tabled in parliament following Queensland's lead should also be on the list. How about extending the GIPA act to cover the parliamentary departments in line with developments in Tasmania and the national capital? We could go on....

Hansard doesn't record any hear, hears when Ms Sharpe finished speaking.


The Hon. PENNY SHARPE [7.04 p.m.]: Since 2007 the United Nations has observed September 15 as International Day of Democracy. International Day of Democracy was created around the idea of democracy as a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of life. This year September 15 was also the day chosen to launch the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness—a call to parliaments worldwide for stronger collaboration to improve openness, transparency and citizen participation in the legislative process.

The Declaration on Parliamentary Openness came about as a result of a conference earlier this year that brought together parliamentary monitoring organisations from around the world. Parliamentary monitoring organisations are not-for-profit organisations set up by citizens to monitor or assess the functioning of parliaments or their individual members. Parliamentary monitoring organisations bridge the gap between Hansard and the public, making information more accessible. Around the world more than 191 parliamentary monitoring organisations monitor more than 80 national parliaments. The Declaration on Parliamentary Openness is based on four key principles: promoting a culture of openness; making parliamentary information transparent; easing access to parliamentary information; and enabling electronic communication of parliamentary information.

These might seem like simple concepts but, as the declaration acknowledges, there are varying cultural, historical, political, technological and economic factors in the national contexts in which parliaments function. The belief behind the declaration is that by giving citizens better access to parliamentary information one can promote engagement in and strengthen the capacity of all citizens to participate in parliamentary processes. Some examples of parliamentary monitoring organisations include websites such as the OpenCongress Wiki and RaceTracker, which use crowd-sourced information to share and analyse what is happening in Congress and to track every 2012 race for the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives and State Governor. RaceTracker is a free, open-source, fully-referenced and non-partisan public resource.

Another example is a grassroots campaign organised by that has called on Congress to have all non-emergency legislation online for at least 72 hours before being voted on. In Africa the Bungeni project supports open source applications and "aims at making Parliaments more open and accessible to citizens … virtually allowing them inside Parliament". In Hungary parliamentary monitoring organisations have developed free online tools that allow citizens to track plagiarism in the Hansard of parliament and through legislation. In Australia aims to make it easy for people to keep tabs on their Federal representatives by providing alerts when any given member of Parliament speaks. As the website states:

      For all its faults and foibles, our democracy is a profound gift from previous generations. Yet most people don't know the name of their representative, let alone what they do or say in their name.

      We aim to help bridge this growing democratic disconnect, in the belief that there is little wrong with Parliament that a healthy mixture of transparency and public engagement won't fix. is run by volunteers. It has become the go-to site for information about your local member or senator and what they are saying in the House on your behalf. However, the road to establishing OpenAustralia has not been easy. It requires the cooperation of parliaments in making the data, that is, the working of parliament, open to third parties. State parliaments have not been overly keen to progress this issue and that is a pity. has endorsed the declaration, along with numerous other parliamentary monitoring organisations.

Meaningful engagement with parliamentary processes strengthens our democracy. But so too does engagement with public sector agencies. The principles behind the declaration can and should be applied to the whole of government. Opening up information and making it accessible to the public should lead to better services for citizens. As my favourite politics savvy geek Pia Waugh explains:
      By making data appropriately publicly available there are better opportunities for public scrutiny and engagement in democracy and with government in a way that is focused on actual policy outcomes, rather than through the narrow aperture of politics or the media.

      This also builds trust, leads to a better informed public, and gives the public service an opportunity to leverage the skills, knowledge and efforts of the broader community like never before.

I hope this Government and this Parliament takes on board the Declaration of Parliamentary Openness and looks at how we can use the declaration to open our democracy in New South Wales. Here in New South Wales we can and we should do better. 

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