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."
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.
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.
"..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.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.
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?
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).
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.
Later in the session Ms Leon responded:
Later in the hearing: