We've been considering this for well over a year, with no result so far, as Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan explained when quizzed by The Greens Senator Rhiannon in Senate Estimates this week.
Professor McMillan said there are a number of issues that still need to be examined, and his office has been asked to explain in greater detail the role that it could play in preparing for example, a national action plan. But other pressures and limited resources meant that work is yet to be undertaken. A membership, decision would need to be made at the highest levels of government, presumably by the Prime Minister or cabinet. In the meantime his thoughts:
But I think it is of benefit to Australia to take heed of the substantial developments that are occurring internationally in relation to open government. Australia has achieved a great deal but there are many examples internationally from which Australia can learn about further implementation of open government. Participation in international forums is certainly an advantage to all countries, I would think, in this space.Here are 10 reasons off the top of my head for a favourable decision quickly. By my reckoning PM&C, DFAT, AusAID, OAIC, AGIMO, AG's and RET all have an interest in the matters raised below. Can an interdepartmental committee like that move at a cracking pace? The track record isn't encouraging but we live in hope.
1. Professor McMillan is right, we would benefit directly from joining with others who think this stuff is important. The Open Government Partnership describes itself as "a global effort to make governments better. We all want more transparent, effective and accountable governments -- with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations." So do we, including here at home. It's not just a fledging democracy gig. The US, UK, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the increasingly influential Brazil, and Mexico along with South Africa, to name just some members, all see take home value in this. So should we.
2. The UK and Indonesia currently co-chair the OGP with 57 member countries. Both are good friends of Australia. Indonesia is more, located on our doorstep. Our foreign ministers agree there is "a unique partnership between Australia and Indonesia that would be an asset in supporting the region's ambitions" and that "Australia and Indonesia would co-operate on building a peaceful, prosperous and connected region." Here's another opportunity for partnering. Indonesia's representative at officials' OGP discussions is a senior officer from Strategic Initiatives at the President's Delivery Unit, close to the centre of things.
3. Only three countries, Indonesia, the Philippines (yet to pass a law) and Korea have joined in our region, a notably poor show given the lip service paid to open government in most countries in Asia and the Pacific. As a newly elected member of the UN Security Council (this morning) we should show some practical regional leadership, by example, not just words.
4. By signing up to the OGP and now playing a leadership role, Indonesia is inviting close scrutiny of its track record and delivery on open government commitments at home and abroad. At home where the membership criteria requires civil society engagement with and evaluation of progress on a national national action plan, and abroad where independent evaluators also review the plan.This can only be a good thing. As the Indonesian National Action Plan states: "Open government is critical for Indonesia to complete its democratization process and to set a solid foundation towards a new strong economy characterized by a mature and open society."
(While no world beater on performance to this point (see for example this UCL Constitution Unit assessment and reports published on freedominfo.org), the RTI Index that ranks the access to information laws of 93 countries placed Indonesia 24 (99/150) on the list-Australia was 48 with 84/150, but that's another matter. Some good bones are in place there but performance to deliver takes time, as we know from experience. Encouragement from those nearby is both welcome and necessary. Update: democracy in Indonesia is under pressure as outlined in this commentary published on the Lowy Interpreter, reinforcing the point that friends should stand visibly alongside on the question of open government.)
5. Minutes of meetings of committees of the OGP held in recent weeks in New York show that willing helping hands are needed for this ambitious project to achieve its objectives. We're well placed to pitch in and contribute.
6. Signing on to an international open government initiative such as this fits with our other interests. We seek to promote better governance through our official aid program, an element of which is more accountable, open and responsive government. Australia has over $700 million invested in initiatives to deliver on this in the region. After all we're in this region for the long haul, as the commissioning of the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century testifies.
7. Indonesia is attempting to encourage and assist countries in the region. We should be giving a hand-see 6 above. As the National Action Plan states "as the current chair and the biggest economy of ASEAN countries, Indonesia holds the moral responsibility to be the role model for the region in the area of good governance and accountability." Tara Hidayat of the Indonesian President's Delivery Unit in Jakarta told the Steering Committee in New York that Indonesia and the Philippines have been exchanging ideas. Indonesia is to replicate the Philippines "check My School" program. Our experience with My School might come in handy. There are plenty of other examples.
8. Another open government topic of regional significance raised by Ms Hidayat in New York, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, is an issue of great interest to us. The EITI aims for better transparency through companies publishing their payments and governments disclosing their receipts from those companies. It promotes better governance in countries rich in oil, gas and minerals and seeks to reduce the risk of diversion or misappropriation of funds generated by the development of a country’s extractive industry resources. It works through the joint co-operation of governments, private sector companies and civil society groups. Australia is a member of the EITI Management Committee and has committed $17.45 million (2007 to 2015) to the World Bank administered Multi-Donor Trust Fund and the EITI Secretariat. The only EITI compliant country in the region is Timor-Leste. Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are interested or on the way. We have a stake in this.
10. The Fifth Bali Democracy Forum hosted by Indonesian President Bangbang Yudhoyono will be held on November 8-‐9, 2012. Prime Minister Gillard will be attending having accepted a personal invitation from President Yudhoyono to co-chair the Forum. To quote the Media Release:
Australia has welcomed and supported Indonesia’s evolution into a strong and vibrant democracy, and greatly values the constructive leadership role that our close neighbour plays in the region and beyond. The Forum, which Australia has supported since its inception in 2008, is a key inter-governmental meeting for advancing democratic reform.The OGP is about continuous improvement in the practice of democracy. The Bali Forum is the perfect opportunity for the PM in her opening address to announce we have decided to join the OGP. Ms Hidayat told the Steering Committee in New York that an OGP session will be included in the Forum agenda. As a country committed to joining we might even be able to grab a seat, rather than have to sit that session out.
Surely even in these tough times a country proud of how well its economy is traveling could find $50,000 (the membership fee, and sure that's just for starters) for this good cause?
Can we do it? Yes we can! Oh, and I'm ready to serve (inexpensively) should my country need me.
The Hansard extract of the questioning of Professor McMillan on this topic in Estimates follows:
Senator RHIANNON: In previous estimates we have discussed the fact that the Australian government is not yet a member of the Open Government Partnership, which has 57 members, including the United States, Britain and Canada. I understand that you have given a speech where you said that Australian membership is still—your words were—'under discussion'.
Prof McMillan : Yes.