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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Australia, international relations and the OGP

Back in February I mentioned Samantha Power senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the White House had said President Obama has a personal interest in the Open Government Partnership initiative, having launched it in the UN General Assembly in 2011.

Power said at the time President Obama often brings the subject up, spontaneously, with foreign leaders and described the OGP as "President Obama’s signature governance initiative." 

I wondered if the Australian Embassy in Washington had twigged to this at a time when the issue of Australian membership of the OGP had disappeared off the radar and whether what Power had to say cut much ice in Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

Power is now the nominee for US Ambassador to the UN. Global Integrity describes Power as an architect of the OGP

A briefing note including some discussion points for the Australian Mission to the UN about our thoughts on the OGP now we have decided to join might be helpful when paths cross?

To quote Attorney General Dreyfus on the international dimension:
”Australia shares the values of the Open Government Partnership and we have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with other nations in the partnership,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“We believe that greater openness and accountability in government promotes public participation in government processes and leads to better informed decision-making.
The Open Government Partnership provides an international forum for countries, civil society and the private sector to stand together to address the challenges of governance in the 21st century.....  
“Membership of the Open Government Partnership will complement Australia’s leadership internationally in promoting democracy, transparency and good governance,” Mr Dreyfus said. “It will also assist Australia to spread the values of transparency and accountability in our region.”
In Senate Estimates on  6 June Senator Faulkner asked DFAT about the OGP. They hardly sounded full bottle but the good news is that the department is "very supportive of the OGP."

The Hansard extract follows:
Senator FAULKNER: I want to follow up on an issue I raised at the last estimates round, which is the issue of Australia's involvement in the Open Government Partnership. Since that estimates round, I am very pleased to see that Australia has launched its letter of intent. I have been informed at other estimates committees last week that the Prime Minister has determined that the Attorney-General should be the lead minister on this matter and the Attorney-General's Department the lead agency. So that is understood, and I have certainly appreciated the fact that witnesses at the table for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were seen to be the most informed and forthcoming in the last estimates round, which is a positive thing. It is always good isn't it, Mr Varghese, to be able to say something positive at estimates? I learnt more about this from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade than from other departments.

But what I would like to know now—and whether you can help me, Mr Rowe, or any other official—is what you understand to be the situation in relation to the engagement of DFAT with the OGP, given, which I appreciate, that decisions are starting to be made now about ongoing processes and the involvement with the OGP. So if you could give us a brief status report on what you understand will be the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s engagement with the OGP now, I would appreciate that.

Mr R Rowe : Certainly. Following the decision by the government to become a member of the OGP, we will now need, in a whole-of-government sense, to focus on the development of a national action plan. As you mention, the process, in an inter-agency context, will be led by the Attorney-General's Department. On DFAT’s side, we are ready to engage very actively in that process and we will contribute to the development of that national action plan. In DFAT, the responsible area will be the freedom of information and privacy law section in the legal part of the international organisations and legal division. I will have oversight of the involvement of that section and our work in relation to the national action plan. So we are ready to engage.

Senator FAULKNER: Is this likely to mean Australian attendance at any or a number of international meetings of forums that you are aware of?

Mr R Rowe : I am not aware of it at the moment. I think we need to determine, particularly with the Attorney-General's Department and other interested agencies, just what particular meetings are actually relevant and where we might usefully participate.

Senator FAULKNER: If there is Australian involvement, which I hope there will be, in relevant international forums, will that be supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? We have established that the Attorney-General's Department is the lead agency here.

Mr R Rowe : Obviously, as I mentioned and as the minister mentioned at the last estimates, we are very supportive of the OGP. Consistent with that support, it would follow that if there are relevant meetings we would discuss with Attorney-General's and other agencies the best form of representation at those meetings to ensure the government's and Australia's involvement in the process is reflected in every aspect. But that discussion has not yet occurred. But it is something that will take place very shortly.

Senator FAULKNER: Are you expecting this will take some resources at the DFAT level?

Mr R Rowe : I indicated how we would be covering our involvement and support for the Open Government Partnership process. At the present time, I consider that we would be able to manage that adequately from the existing resources that we have at our disposal in the legal area of the ILD.

Senator FAULKNER: Do you have an update on how many countries are currently members of the OGP? I realise that one has recently indicated that it has withdrawn, and I might ask you about that too.

Mr R Rowe : The information that I have is that there are now 53 members of the OGP, with a further six countries indicating their intention to join.

Senator FAULKNER: And what category does Australia fall into—intention to join or actually a member?

Mr R Rowe : We have to be accepted at the meeting in October, I understand.

Senator FAULKNER: Yes. So we are in the six, effectively, are we?

Mr R Rowe : That is correct.

Senator FAULKNER: It is also true, isn't it, that one country, namely Russia, has withdrawn from the OGP?

Mr R Rowe : I do not have that information.

Senator FAULKNER: So you are not aware of it?

Mr R Rowe : I am not aware of it.

Senator FAULKNER: If you are not aware of that, I suspect that I cannot ask you about it. Would that be right?

Mr R Rowe : Correct. You can ask me, but I will take it on notice.

Senator FAULKNER: No. I was going to ask you about some background. Admittedly it is public knowledge, of course, that Russia has withdrawn, and I was going to ask you some questions about the implications of that. But if you are not aware of it, I will await a further occasion. I will just flag with you for the next estimates round that I might ask for some. I realise it is early days. Certainly we have established that from the Attorney-General's Department. I might flag that follow through about what this involvement means in terms of any departmental action or resources as far as DFAT is concerned.

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