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Friday, May 31, 2013

AGD business as usual approach to OGP may not cut the mustard

It may have just been the end of a long day at Senate Estimates for the Attorney General's Department- 7pm by the time the Open Government Partnership cropped up. 

Officials may have been understandably tired and a bit short of briefing material and thinking time following the recent decision that Australia join and AGD carry the load.

However David Fredericks Deputy Secretary, Civil Justice and Legal Services Group who responded to questions hardly sounded brimming with enthusiasm or fully across some of the implications of signing on to a government-civil society partnership.

In response to questions from Senator Rhiannon, Mr Fredericks said no, there was no specific budget allocation for the OGP; staffing is yet to be sorted; and consultation on development of a national action plan would be as per the usual way AGD deals with stakeholders. But as to the detail, and content issues such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, it was too early to say. The Hansard extract appears below.

Fair enough on content, although AGD thinking on this front late last year was jumping ahead, narrow and limited in ambition. 

But on development of the National Action Plan, the OGP Articles of Governance include guidance that suggests something very different from business as usual consultation, at least of the dry as dust old-style kind we saw recently with the AGD supporting Dr Hawke's FOI review.

I'm sure Mr Fredericks has this back at the office. Other readers may find it of interest:

OGP participating governments commit to developing their country action plans through a multi-stakeholder process, with the active engagement of citizens and civil society. Taking account of relevant national laws and policies, OGP participants agree to develop their country commitments according to the following principles:
• Countries are to make the details of their public consultation process and timeline
available (online at minimum) prior to the consultation, providing public notice at least two weeks in advance of any given consultation, to maximize public participation.
• Countries are to consult widely with the national community, including civil society and the private sector; seek out a diverse range of views and; make a summary of the public consultation and all individual written comment submissions available online
• Countries are to undertake OGP awareness raising activities to enhance public
participation in the consultation
• Countries are to consult the population with sufficient forewarning and through variety of mechanisms —including online and through in-person meetings— to ensure the accessibility of opportunities for citizens to engage
•Countries are to identify a forum to enable regular multi-stakeholder consultation on OGP implementation—this can be an existing entity or a new one.
Countries is (sic) to report on their consultation efforts as part of the self-assessment, and the independent reporting mechanism is to also examine the application of these principles in practice.
The Hansard extract follows:

Senator RHIANNON: ... What resources and staff will be put into this initiative?

Mr Fredericks : That is a matter we will have to consider in time.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice? In previous estimates the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner had said that they would require two additional staff. Was there anything allocated in the May budget to cover this?

Mr Fredericks : Obviously this will be a matter ultimately for the Attorney-General's Department in its own internal budget setting, as well as other agencies and other departments. Our internal budgeting process for 2013-14 is not complete, and so it will be considered in that process.

Senator RHIANNON: So is the answer no, that there is not a specific allocation for the office in the May budget?

Mr Fredericks : If you are asking whether there has been a new policy measure for this in the budget just passed, the answer to the question is no.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that in the United States during the development of their national action plan, the federal government engaged in extensive consultations with external stakeholders; civil society groups and members of the private sector got involved. Do you have plans for similar consultation here?

Mr Fredericks : We will certainly consult, as is our usual way in progressing matters like this. As to the detail, it is too early to say.

Senator RHIANNON: You have said that you will be consulting 'in the usual way'. Can you say what your usual way is, please?

Mr Fredericks : We would consult with stakeholders.

Senator RHIANNON: You have obviously done it in the past, so which stakeholders are you referring to?

Mr Fredericks : I think it is too early for us to be able to advise on particular stakeholders. This is very recent advice from the Prime Minster. We will start that work though.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say, 'in the usual way', it does suggest that you are doing something which has been done before. That is what I am just trying to get to the bottom of.

Mr Fredericks : 'The usual way' is that we as a department will consult with stakeholders in the development of—

Senator RHIANNON: You do not have an example you could share with us—in terms of 'the usual way'? Do you have an example where you have done it before, where you have done something 'the usual way' and you can share it with us—what you did and who you consulted with?

Mr Fredericks : I cannot do it in relation to this particular initiative. But, in the usual course, a department like ours would consult with relevant stakeholders in the development of the work and we will do that here.

Senator RHIANNON: The US National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership includes a commitment to implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. That is a voluntary framework under which governments publicly disclose their revenues from oil, gas and mining assets and companies make parallel disclosures regarding payments they are making to obtain access to publicly owned resources. Another measure in the US national action plan is an initiative to increase the transparency of foreign assistance. Will these kinds of measures be replicated in our plan?

Mr Fredericks : We are aware of that issue and we will look at it. Ultimately, that will be a matter for government.

Senator RHIANNON: You have said that you are aware of the issue.

Mr Fredericks : My colleagues tell me that we are aware of the initiatives that you just described.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you explain what awareness means? Has consideration been given to actually doing this? Has a brief been prepared on it? Has a recommendation been made? Can you explain what awareness means in that context?

Mr Fredericks : Define 'aware'. We understand that that is an issue. We understand it is an issue we will have to turn our mind to and that the government will need to turn its mind to. As to whether we have done that in any full way yet, the answer is no.

Senator RHIANNON: What will be the process after the Hawke review of FOI laws is tabled? Will there be further consultation on the recommendations of this review in the context of the Open Government Partnership plan development process?

Senator Ludwig: I am sorry, Senator. We are not sure who that was directed at.

Senator RHIANNON: I am not sure myself—whoever picks it up. The question was: what will the process be after the Hawke review of FOI laws is tabled? Will there be further consultation on the recommendations of this review in the context of the Open Government Partnership plan development process?

Senator Ludwig: I suspect that would be for the Attorney-General to decide once he receives it.

Senator RHIANNON: I return to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. What obstacles, if any, are there to Australia signing up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative's legislative obligations?

Mr Fredericks : We as a department are just not in a position to answer that. I could take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: When you take it on notice, does that mean you are in a position to answer it but you do not have the information? Before you have been sending me off to the A-G—this one stays with you?

Mr Fredericks : We will need to consider that. I suspect we would seek advice from other departments as well.

Senator RHIANNON: This has been a long one. When do you think Australia will do so, considering it has been 11 years since the commencement of the initiative?

Mr Fredericks : What do you mean by 'do so'?

Senator RHIANNON: The initiative started 11 years ago and it is still being considered. I am just trying to understand what your process is and when the decision might be made—and also the link with the Open Government Partnership plan. Will it form part of Australia's Open Government Partnership plan?

Mr Fredericks : I am terribly sorry. It is late and maybe I am a bit slow. I am not quite sure which particular initiative you are directing our attention to.

Senator RHIANNON: The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Mr Fredericks : I am not in a position to answer that tonight. I will need to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Hopefully you can answer this bit of it, because it seems to me to be just a process point—will it be part of Australia's Open Government Partnership plan?

Mr Fredericks : No decision has been made on that. We will need to consider that going forward.

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