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Monday, February 18, 2013

Australian OGP decision getting closer as senators probe delay

Responses to questions in Senate Estimates hearings in Canberra last week confirm what emerged from documents released by the Office of Australian Information Commissioner on 9 February, that officials see the way forward to a decision for Australia to apply to join the Open Government Partnership prior to the OGP Steering Committee meeting in April. 

Development of a draft national action plan would follow through April-September, for consideration by the OGP steering committee, then formal signing of the Declaration of Open Government prior to the October annual ministerial meeting in London.

All good news, although there is scope for bigger thinking than we have seen so far about what we could do with the OGP once we make the decision to join, and for going beyond routine consultation to explore real partnership on this with an enlivened civil society.

Labor Senator John Faulkner and The Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, through questions of Attorney General's, the Office of Australian Information Commissioner and Prime Minister and Cabinet (extracts below) retrieved the issue from the public service "to do" box and put it squarely on the ministerial decision making table. I understand questions were also asked of DFAT officials but the transcript of that hearing is yet to appear.

Both senators probed the shilly-shallying that has gone on within the bureaucracy on this over the last 18 months, somewhat incredulous that a decision is yet to be taken.
 
In answer to questions about who had responsibility for the OGP issue, the Attorney General's Department said new Attorney General Dreyfus, only days in the job, had yet to be briefed on the OGP and they were unsure of his views. Senator Faulkner took a well informed guess:
 "I know the current Attorney-General's very strong commitment to the sorts of issues that the OGP embraces. I would be very surprised if he did not share the previous Attorney-General's commitment in this area. In fact I would be very, very confident he would." 
The senator criticised the hold-ups, querying why Australia has not got on board, said "time is overdue for us to do something about this", asked that it be brought to the Attorney General's attention and, in a comment sure to register with those involved, that he intends to stay firmly on the case.

Senator Ludwig, the minister present at the hearing, was in no doubt what this meant. He would seek a response from the current Attorney-General "as to what impediments he may see, and see if we can get an answer to you tonight before you go to the foreign affairs committee." Nothing has made it onto the public record so far. That was last Tuesday 12 February.
 
Apart from "let's do it", there is a need for some quick sorting out of who within government is responsible, what resources are needed and where they are to come from.

Question and answer exchanges in the Estimates hearings established the following:
  • the US government apparently has not received a reply to the invitation in August 2011 to join from Hillary Clinton to Foreign Minister Rudd. In the murky waters of uncertainty in Canberra over responsibility for the OGP, AG's officials who conceded when pushed that they have carriage of the matter until someone decides otherwise, admitted they have never asked Foreign Affairs and don't know to this day if a reply was sent.  
  • the then Attorney General wrote to ministers in June 2012 proposing we join but no decision has been taken. Ms Roxon's letter to the PM may never have made it into her in-tray - the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister replied in September   indicating "that further work needs to be done including involving a number of other ministers in that further consideration." Senator Faulkner asked for a copy. Presumably the Australian Information Commissioner's thoughts in January are part of this.
  • because of a number of competing priorities, the OAIC took five months to respond (in January 2013) to the letter from AG's regarding steps that need to be taken and how the OAIC might manage this. Professor McMillan said he had been uncertain about the benefits of joining the OGP early on but is now enthusiastic, "strongly impressed, particularly by the commitment that Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have made and how they have used their membership of the OGP as a lever for developing particularly open data policies in their countries."
  •  no attempt has been made to bring together agencies with an interest in matters relating to the OGP in an interdepartmental committee or other internal government mechanism to do the necessary work. 
A composite of comments by Senator Faulkner during the session with AG's and OAIC reads like this:
"..what I would like to see us do is join up...58 countries like-minded countries have joined. The US Secretary of State asked us to do this in August 2011. What I am trying to understand is what is the hold up. We cannot now join, as I understand the OGP's internal arrangements...until later in this calendar year....It seems to me that given, the commitment the Attorney-General had to this, I do not really understand why Australia cannot get on board. I do not know if you can help me, Minister, with this. I really do not understand what the hold-up is, and why Australia cannot get on board, given its strong commitment in so many of these areas that are embraced by the open government partnership...It is not a very active consultation process, is it? In fact it is a hopeless consultation process....I hope, Minister, within the Attorney-General's Department—not just the department but the OAIC, and if there is any other portfolio body interested in being involved as well—if we ever get to the point of establishing an IDC, or steering committee or the like, if there is a need to do so, that we just get on with it. I do hope the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner would be involved. I respectfully make that suggestion to the new Attorney-General, Minister; and flag that I really think time is overdue for us to do something about this. I also flag my intention to maintain an interest in it at the estimates of this department and the OAIC. Thanks."
(Dreamer's wishlist: give John Faulkner some sort of appropriate title, authority and resources that would enable him to crack the whip on the home front, and the tag 'Special Envoy for the Open Government Partnership' for use in the international arena. Put together some top-line talent to support him. Despite tough times get the show on the road with some new money to augment contributions from agencies that have relevant interests that would be advanced through OGP membership - PM&C, OAIC, AG's, DFAT, Digital Economy, AUSAID, RET, just off the top of my head. I know, I know, just dreaming.)

At least officials in the AG's/OAIC hearing knew something about the OGP when questions were asked. 

When Senator Faulkner raised the OGP during a separate hearing with Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, it wasn't quite a "WTF?" moment that followed but it was a near thing. I know there is a lot on and keeping track of it all is a challenge for senior officials and the rest of us, but the exchanges suggest  awareness levels at the highest echelons of "President Obama’s signature governance initiative" isn't what it should be : 
( Ms Renee Leon, Deputy Secretary, Governance, and Dr Margot McCarthy, National Security Adviser.)
Senator FAULKNER: I was going to follow up on the letter that the Attorney-General wrote to the Prime Minister, I believe in June of last year, in relation to the proposal that Australia join the Open Government Partnership. 
Dr McCarthy : Is that a UK initiative? I have heard of that in the UK context. Is that perhaps why you thought— 
Senator FAULKNER: An international initiative is how I would describe it. I do not think it could be described as a UK initiative in that sense, although I believe there was a 2013 meeting of the OGP steering committee in London. 
Dr McCarthy : That is perhaps the context in which I am aware of it, but I do not have any more detail. I could take your question on notice.
Ms Leon : Senator, we will do some interrogation of our systems to see if we can ascertain which part of the department may have more information to assist you. If we can get back to you while the committee is still sitting then we will certainly endeavour to do so. If not, do you have some specific questions that you want us to take on notice?
He did and Ms Leon came back later in the session with answers including the fact that the Senator McLucas the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister had responded to the Attorney General's "let's join" letter of June 2012, with a "needs more work" message. While some of that has been done since it seems doubtful that "other ministers" have been brought into the loop in the eight months since. 

Things seem to be moving now. 

(Update: Foreign Minister supports.)

Extracts from the Hansards follow - definitely afficionado stuff - the AG's/OAIC session (40 minutes) first, followed by PM&C.

 Attorney General's Portfolio
OAIC (Professor McMillan) and Attorney General's Department (Elizabeth Kelly, Deputy Secretary, Strategic Policy and Coordination Group).

CHAIR: Professor McMillan and your colleagues, good evening and welcome. Senator Rhiannon, we will go to you first—about 15 minutes or so—and then we will go to Senator Faulkner.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Last week, many of us certainly welcomed the decision of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to release information on Australia's membership of the Open Government Partnership. It was good to see that was out there. I do note that Australia was invited by the US State Department to join in August 2011, and in May 2012 the then Attorney-General, Ms Roxon, expressed her support for that. Why has it taken so long to even start the process?
Prof. McMillan : Senator, the short answer is that there have been competing priorities, certainly in my office, and I expect there would be a similar consideration in, say, the Attorney-General's Department or in other departments. If I can just explain my part. I received a letter from the Attorney-General's Department in mid-August 2012 asking me to advise on what steps my office could take to assist the Australian government to join the Open Government Partnership. It took me five months to reply with the letter that you referred to that was recently released under the FOI Act and placed on our and another website. The only explanation, I think, is that there were quite a number of other competing priorities in the office at the time.
Senator RHIANNON: Five months is a long time. Can you share with us what your problem was? Was it a lack of resources? Did more work come across your desk than you expected? It is an extraordinary length of time.
Prof. McMillan : That was a busy time. Firstly, we were completing the annual report. Secondly, the office also organised and convened a seminar to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the commencement of the Freedom of Information Act in Australia. We were also completing a report that will be released within a week or so on a survey that we undertook earlier in 2012 of over 190 government agencies on their publication practices with public sector information. As the senator may know, we were also dealing with a large influx of applications for Information Commissioner reviews of FOI decisions, and there were the Privacy Act reforms. It is probably fair to say that I was personally involved in each of those activities, and I decided also that I was best placed to take the lead in preparing the response to government on the Open Government Partnership. I do not underrate the importance of the Open Government Partnership, but the other activities all had high priority too.
Senator RHIANNON: Okay. So what kinds of activities could the government propose as part of the national action plan; and will this then be subject to community consultation?
Prof. McMillan : There are about 55 countries, I think, that have joined the Open Government Partnership, and their national action plans are quite varied. But three that have caught my eye and that I think provide a good model for Australia are the national action plans prepared by the United Kingdom, by Canada and by the United States, which of course all have comparable systems of government—a commitment to democracy and open government. Now, the action plans for those countries have a very strong focus on the open-government dimension of the Open Government Partnership, with a particular focus on development of a proactive open data policy—that is, putting in place a framework to encourage proactive publication of information, raw data sets and the like, by government agencies.
The Open Government Partnership rules also allow a country's action plan to extend far more broadly, into areas like steps to combat corruption; to improve government services, particularly to disadvantaged communities; and to elevate integrity and ethics in government. Now, those are all very important objectives, but my view—this is my personal view—is that, if Australia were to join, a national action plan would be better focused on those core open-government objectives.
Senator RHIANNON: In the last lot of estimates last year, your office said that they felt they had more work to do in developing a national action plan. Could you just give us an idea of when it will be released, and how far advanced it is, because we have had one delay. Are we over those delays?
Prof. McMillan : The idea that Australia should develop some kind of policy framework to embody its open-government commitments is a proposal that I had put forward when the office commenced, back in November 2010. At that stage, I issued an issues paper on day one, really, of the office, called Towards a national information policy, and there was a proposal of that kind. I said there was a lot happening—there are a large number of agencies, a large number of activities, guidelines and codes—and it would be useful to be able to draw it all together.
As time has gone on and this international Open Government Partnership has developed, with a requirement that member countries develop a national action plan, the kinds of proposals that my office has put forward to have tended to coalesce a little. So the way in which I have been framing it more recently—for example, in a submission to the Hawke review, in this letter to government—is that, if Australia does choose to join the Open Government Partnership, then the development of a national action plan would provide an excellent focus for drawing together all of those threads of the considerable open-government work that has been undertaken over the last couple of years.
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry; I may have misunderstood the whole process. You just said 'if Australia decides to join the Open Government Partnership'.
Prof. McMillan : Yes. That is a decision for the executive government—
Senator RHIANNON: Right. So that decision has not been made?
Prof. McMillan : The Attorney-General, in a letter to me in June last year, signalled that she had proposed to other departments that Australia join and was seeking a response from those departments. I am not aware of whether there has been a formal response to the Attorney-General or the department from other departments. My only involvement has been to explain, on request, what role my office could play, and I took the opportunity to address the issue more expansively in that letter earlier this year.
Senator RHIANNON: So we have not formally joined yet?
Prof. McMillan : No, we have not. There has been no decision by the Australian government on whether to join.
Senator RHIANNON: It is often reported that OAIC resourcing is fairly tight.
Prof. McMillan : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you anticipate receiving additional staff and resources to help drive whatever level of involvement the government decides to bring forward for the OGP?
Prof. McMillan : The proposal I have put to government was that my office would be willing to take a leadership role and provide what support it could to the process of public consultation, preparation of an action plan, coordination of discussion between other agencies, but that on current resources we simply could not do that. I explained in the letter that we indeed had had to shed staff by different processes, to downsize some other activities within the office and that I could not see any way forward for us to take on extra work without some supplementary funding or assistance.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you had a response to that yet?
Prof. McMillan : No, I have not had a response. I might say that the letter we are talking about was gone within the month and there has been a change of Attorney-General in the period. That question is obviously better addressed to the department.
Senator RHIANNON: If I understood you correctly you said that at the moment you are really not in a position to take the OGP forward—something would have to change.
Prof. McMillan : There is some activity that we could certainly undertake. Ultimately it is a question for government, firstly, on whether Australia joins and, secondly, which agency has responsibility. There are a number of other agencies that have a significant role in the area of information policy and also international relations. It is foreseeable that government, if it chose to join, could decide that the lead role should be taken by another agency and that mine should simply be one of those that is consulted.
Senator RHIANNON: I would like to move on to the Hawke review.
Prof. McMillan : Yes.
Senator FAULKNER: I want to ask some questions on that too.
Senator RHIANNON: Okay. Should I keep going?
CHAIR: I do not mind. You need to share the time.
Senator FAULKNER: The first thing I would like to know is: is the Attorney-General's Department the lead agency in relation to the Australian response on the OGP? I was told that was the case in Prime Minister and Cabinet estimates on Monday. I would like to have that confirmed.
Ms E. Kelly : The previous Attorney-General certainly took responsibility for considering the matter within government and for leading that process. We have not had an opportunity to brief the new Attorney-General on this issue as yet, and so as yet it is not clear whether he will take the same view.
Senator FAULKNER: As it stands, the Attorney-General's Department is the lead agency. We can say that until someone makes a decision that it is not.
Ms E. Kelly : I think you can say that, Senator Faulkner.
Senator FAULKNER: Is it true that Secretary of State Clinton invited Australia to join the OGP in August 2011. Is that correct?
Ms E. Kelly : I am sorry, but I cannot answer that.
Prof. McMillan : I am aware that that is correct.
Senator FAULKNER: It is correct. Has anybody responded to Secretary of State Clinton? It is a couple of years on and so I thought someone might have written in response. Has any agency or minister done that yet?
Ms E. Kelly : It was an invitation to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am informed.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, but you are the lead agency and so I do not want to go to foreign affairs asking questions about this in a couple of days' time to be told to go back to the Attorney-General's Department, because it is the lead agency. Hence I am asking here—which seems sensible—whether there has been a response to Secretary of State Clinton's letter of August 2011.
Ms E. Kelly : We are not aware of whether the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has responded to that.
Senator Ludwig: That is not the question that is being asked. You are the lead agency. Have you responded?
Ms E. Kelly : No, we have not.
Senator FAULKNER: So, there has been no response.
Ms E Kelly : We are not aware of whether the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has responded.
Senator FAULKNER: You are the lead agency, so as far as you are aware there has been no response. But DFAT may have responded, or the Minister for Foreign Affairs may have responded. You do not know of any response?
Ms E Kelly : No.
Senator FAULKNER: So this has just been sitting around since August 2011.
Ms E Kelly : Some really useful work has been done to consider the issue within government. As Professor McMillan has said, he has provided very useful work, and the information advisory committee has also provided its views on the matter. Before government does make a decision in relation to the Open Government Partnership, it is prudent to consider what would be involved in joining the Open Government Partnership and the sorts of things that might be considered in the country action plan. That work has been done and, as you will see from Professor McMillan's letter, we are very well advanced, and we are in a position now to brief the new Attorney-General about this issue.
Senator FAULKNER: But it is true, isn't it, that the Attorney-General wrote to Professor McMillan on 27 June 2012? Let me ask you, Professor McMillan, is it true that the Attorney-General Ms Roxon wrote to you on 27 June last year to inform you that she had written to the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy proposing that Australia join the OGP?
Prof. McMillan : Yes, that is correct.
Senator FAULKNER: That letter has been made public. Even I have a copy of it, so it must be very widely distributed.
Prof. McMillan : Yes, it is on the web as a result, I might say, of documents I released the other day.
Senator FAULKNER: We know that the Attorney-General proposed that Australia join the OGP on 27 June last year. I accept that good work has been done, but what I would like to see us do is join up. How many countries have joined up, Professor McMillan?
Prof. McMillan : I think 55 was the last figure I had.
Senator FAULKNER: Many like-minded countries.
Prof. McMillan : It is 58, I am just told. Yes, many like-minded countries.
Senator FAULKNER: That was quick. In five minutes another three countries have joined.
Prof. McMillan : No, it is more my memory.
Senator FAULKNER: So 58 countries like-minded countries have joined. The US Secretary of State asked us to do this in August 2011. What I am trying to understand is what is the hold up. We cannot now join, as I understand the OGP's internal arrangements—Professor McMillan, you can confirm this—until later in this calendar year.
Prof. McMillan : That is correct. The arrangements for the Open Government Partnership are that countries are formally admitted to membership when the annual conference is held. The conference was scheduled to be held in May this year, but it has now been postponed until late October. It is possible for Australia, within this year's timetable, to join.
Senator FAULKNER: We have actually met the OGP eligibility criteria, haven't we?
Prof. McMillan : That is correct.
Senator FAULKNER: So, we have met the eligibility criteria. The next step is to write a letter, which should not be too difficult. I write a number of letters every day. I am sure with all the resources of government we could write a letter about our commitment to the OGP.
Prof. McMillan : As I outlined in my recent letter, the next step would be for a senior officer in the Australian government—'with the approval of the head of state' is the term the OGP uses—to write a letter.
Senator FAULKNER: Which in this case is head of government.
Prof. McMillan : Yes. It would be a letter of one page that would be sent to the steering committee, which is due to meet in London in April, signifying that Australia intends to join.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you reckon a letter of one page is going to really stretch the resources of the Commonwealth of Australia, or have we got the herbs to do it?
Prof. McMillan : I will take that as a rhetorical question, Senator, and not respond.
Senator FAULKNER: Then start work on an action plan, as Senator Rhiannon, was speaking about in her questioning is also part of the process. It seems to me that given, the commitment the Attorney-General had to this, I do not really understand why Australia cannot get on board. I do not know if you can help me, Minister, with this. I really do not understand what the hold-up is, and why Australia cannot get on board, given its strong commitment in so many of these areas that are embraced by the open government partnership.
Senator Ludwig: I will keep my personal views to myself, but I will seek a response from the current Attorney-General as to what impediments he may see, and see if we can get an answer to you tonight before you go to the foreign affairs committee.
Senator FAULKNER: To be fair to Mr Dreyfus, he has been Attorney-General for literally a few days. This has been washing around the system with the previous Attorney-General's commitment for, one could say, years but let us say many, many months—a long time. I know of the current Attorney-General's very strong commitment to the sorts of issues that the OGP embraces. I would be very surprised if he did not share the previous Attorney-General's commitment in this area. In fact I would be very, very confident he would. It is a matter of getting something done. I want to go down to the department and understand, if there are internal processes. Is there, for example, some form of IDC that has been established to work through this issue? You made the point in answer to previous questions, Ms Kelly, that there are other agencies, which I accept. Of course there are other agencies that have an interest in these issues. Is there an IDC, or some internal government mechanism that allows other agencies and, obviously, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and others to do the necessary work here?
Ms E Kelly : There has not been an IDC established at this point, but I would expect that that would be something that would come when the consultation process is commenced. As Professor McMillan has explained, very much the country action plan can range across a whole lot of different areas. It could focus on anticorruption. It could focus, as Professor McMillan has suggested, on a data.gov approach very similar to what is being done in the UK. There would be a very different group of interested agencies and stakeholders depending on what was sought to be pursued as our action, and we do need to commit. Once we join the partnership we do need to commit to an action for which we take significant steps in the first 12 months and complete within two years.
Senator FAULKNER: It is not a very active consultation process, is it? In fact it is a hopeless consultation process.
Ms E Kelly : We have not started the consultation process with a view to developing the action plan.
Senator FAULKNER: You have not started it. That is how hopeless it is.
Ms E Kelly : That would start after they made the decision. We will be briefing the new Attorney about the open government partnership, what is involved and what could be expected to happen after Australia joined the open government partnership.
Senator FAULKNER: I hear what you say, Professor McMillan, that you are very committed to Australia playing a role in the OGP. I do not want to put words in your mouth. I want to hear what your view is as the independent Australian Information Commissioner.
Prof. McMillan : I believe that it would be to Australia's advantage to join, and I believe that Australia could make a very solid contribution internationally and in our region to membership. I had expressed, not diffidence, but uncertainly at an earlier stage. When the OGP was first launched at a meeting that I attended in mid-2011 the future plans and structure were quite unclear, and I think that is the reason at the time there was not a lot of vigour around membership.
My own view is that it was probably premature for Australia even to join when the organisation was formally launched in September 2011. For example, we received, in a fairly informal fashion, the draft of the International Declaration of Open Government just a matter of days before it was formally launched. So I think it was understandable at that stage that there was a bit of a wait-and-see attitude.
Senator FAULKNER: But your views have firmed up now, have they?
Prof. McMillan : Yes. I must say, I have been strongly impressed, particularly by the commitment that Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have made and how they have used their membership of the OGP as a lever for developing particularly open data policies in their countries.
Senator FAULKNER: I hope, Minister, within the Attorney-General's Department—not just the department but the OAIC, and if there is any other portfolio body interested in being involved as well—if we ever get to the point of establishing an IDC, or steering committee or the like, if there is a need to do so, that we just get on with it. I do hope the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner would be involved. I respectfully make that suggestion to the new Attorney-General, Minister; and flag that I really think time is overdue for us to do something about this. I also flag my intention to maintain an interest in it at the estimates of this department and the OAIC. Thanks.
Senator Ludwig: Thank you, Senator Faulkner. I will draw the Attorney-General's attention to the transcript.
Senator FAULKNER: I don't think he will surprised!
Senator Ludwig: No, I don't think he will be either.
Senator RHIANNON: Just continuing on the OGP, in some of the reports on this I noted it has been mentioned that the OAIC and the AG have mentioned the Information Advisory Committee has also been a body that could do this work. But what I understand is that that body is mainly made up from civil society. Are you seriously considering the Information Advisory Committee? Is it just a body of civil society? Is it up to doing this work? How serious is that consideration?
Prof. McMillan : I can describe the committee and its work—Ms Kelly may want to say whether its role was considered. The committee is established by statute. It has at the moment about 13 members. It is a good representation from senior officers from within government—Ms Kelly is a member—and from people outside government: people with experience in archives, librarianship, legal practice, public interest advocacy, journalism and the like. The committee met three times last year; it has taken an active interest. But I think the only role that it could feasibly play is what the OGP calls a multi-stakeholder forum that can be consulted by government concerning its action plan and its progress in meeting it. I do not see that IAC, in terms of the way it has met at this moment, as taking a leading executive role in administering a program of membership.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Ms Kelly, are they being seriously considered for the OGP work?
Ms Kelly : Firstly, in my capacity as an independent member of the Information Advisory Committee, I can only echo Professor McMillan's words. The arms and legs of that committee are the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and so it does not have capacity, other than to provide its views, to do any groundwork that would be associated with the consultation process and developing the country action plan. But it would be a very useful source of views, with many people on the committee having a great deal of expertise in open government matters.
So, from the department's perspective, whilst we would welcome those views, we would not see that as a vehicle to actually implement the Open Government Partnership.
Senator Ludwig: Chair, before we got to the dinner break, I just noticed from the program that we are running a little bit late and there are three outcomes in the Attorney-General's portfolio—
CHAIR: If we just let Ms Kelly and Senator Rhiannon finish—
Senator Ludwig: I was just a bit concerned—
CHAIR: I know we have a totally new program after dinner, so we will just finish with the Information Commissioner and all will be revealed.
Senator RHIANNON: I wanted to ask about an issue that was mentioned before: the letter dated 17 August from the AG's Department. It set out a timetable that actually showed Australia joining, and developing a national action plan by December 2012. So we have missed that deadline. Have you a revised deadline?
Prof. McMillan : The timetable that was outlined in the letter from the Attorney-General's Department to my office was based on the projected meeting timetable of the OGP. As my letter points out, there was a meeting of the steering committee of the OGP in December that set a new timetable for meetings in 2013. So that is the timetable I have outlined; that is the only realistic timetable now. And that would involve Australia signifying its intent to join by April, or June at the latest, and then being prepared to table a country action plan and formally sign the Declaration of Open Government in a meeting late in October.
Senator RHIANNON: When do you anticipate the tabling of the plan in that timetable?
Prof. McMillan : The OGP criteria require the plan to be formally approved by its steering committee prior to the annual meeting. The steering committee is held a couple of days before. It also requires a process of consultation with the secretariat of the OGP. So if Australia were joining, it would launch the development of the country action plan in April, with a view really to finalising it probably by September, certainly by October. I think by then it would be a fairly public document in a final draft form that really just required a formal approval by the OGP steering committee.
Senator RHIANNON: So it could coincide with the election.
Prof. McMillan : Yes, that is one complication of the timetable!
.................................... 

Prime Minister and Cabinet (Ms Renee Leon, Deputy Secretary, GovernanceDr Margot McCarthy, National Security Adviser.)
Senator FAULKNER: I have a couple of questions about the Open Government Partnership and the role of PM&C, but I have assumed it is in 1.2. If it is not, I would hope someone would tell me.
CHAIR: Could we have some guidance before we go to Senator Sinodinos for 1.1.2.
Ms Leon : Senator Faulkner, what is the item?
Senator FAULKNER: I was going to follow up on the letter that the Attorney-General wrote to the Prime Minister, I believe in June of last year, in relation to the proposal that Australia join the Open Government Partnership.
Dr McCarthy : Is that a UK initiative? I have heard of that in the UK context. Is that perhaps why you thought—
Senator FAULKNER: An international initiative is how I would describe it. I do not think it could be described as a UK initiative in that sense, although I believe there was a 2013 meeting of the OGP steering committee in London.
Dr McCarthy : That is perhaps the context in which I am aware of it, but I do not have any more detail. I could take your question on notice.
Ms Leon : Senator, we will do some interrogation of our systems to see if we can ascertain which part of the department may have more information to assist you. If we can get back to you while the committee is still sitting then we will certainly endeavour to do so. If not, do you have some specific questions that you want us to take on notice?
Senator FAULKNER: Released under freedom of information was a letter from the Attorney-General to the Australian Information Commissioner dated 27 June 2012, stating that in August 2011 the US Secretary of State invited Australia to join the Open Government Partnership. In that same letter the Attorney informed Professor McMillan that, amongst other ministers, including the one at the table at the moment, she had written to the Prime Minister proposing that Australia join the OGP. I wondered what developments might have resulted from that initiative. I am happy to leave you with that, Ms Leon, if that helps.

Later in the session Ms Leon responded: 
Ms Leon : I also undertook to get back to Senator Faulkner about the Open Government Partnership. I understand that whether or not Australia joins the Open Government Partnership is still under consideration between a number of agencies within government. I think that the Attorney-General's Department has the lead on that though I could not be entirely definitive about that at this stage of the evening.
Senator FAULKNER: But you could be definitive that it is not PM &C by the sound of it.
Ms Leon : I am able to say that it is not PM & C at the moment. I understand that the Attorney-General's Department would be the best place to commence asking questions about it. But I am informed that it is still under consideration within government and there are likely a number of agencies involved in that.
Senator FAULKNER: Could you take on notice my question the response to the Prime Minister about this issue when sometime earlier than the 27 June 2012 when the Attorney wrote to the PM about this matter.
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Later in the hearing: 
Ms Leon : I can advise that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister replied to the Attorney's letter. So the correspondence you refer to has been the subject of a reply and the essence of the reply was to indicate that further work needs to be done including involving a number of other ministers in that further consideration.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you for that. That is helpful. Who was the relevant parliamentary secretary at the time?
Ms Leon : Senator McLucas was the parliamentary secretary.
Senator FAULKNER: Can you say the date of that letter, please.
Ms Leon : It was 17 September 2012.
Senator FAULKNER: Would you mind taking on notice for me as to whether that response can be provided to the committee. I accept that you probably are not able to make that decision without consulting the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister's office—unless you can table it, I assume you cannot.
Ms Leon : I think I should take that on notice.
Senator FAULKNER: Fair enough. If you could, I would appreciate it.

 

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