Australia hasn't joined, and hasn't made a decision to join or not join.
To be in this position almost three years after the initial invitation puts us out of step with more than sixty other countries that have signed on, including from the G 20 that we chair this year, the US, Brazil, UK, Indonesia and Mexico ( who have all played OGP leadership roles), Argentina Canada, France, Italy, Korea, South Africa and Turkey. That's before we get to Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, NZ, Sweden, the Philippines and plenty of African and South American countries. Others that we encourage along the path to good governance including Myanmar and PNG are showing an interest as well.
Of the G7 countries that endorsed the Open Data Charter in 2013 calling for government data sets to be open by default, only Germany and Japan aren't currently OGP members.
The glimpse into our thinking about the OGP reveals a lack of interest, enthusiasm and urgency, and the low priority Canberra attaches to an international initiative designed to improve democratic practices at home and abroad.
In response to a series of questions from Senator John Faulkner (left) who raised the OGP issue with PM&C, AGD and Finance during the week, Minister Cormann left no doubt where we stand. Time and time again:
- "It is a matter that is currently under consideration...."
- "we are not in the process of joining.."
- "At this stage Australia has not formally joined the open government partnership. And the previous government did not. The previous government gave an indication that it was committed to joining, but it did not actually formally join. So this is a matter that we are now considering to give consideration to...(sic)"
- "the previous government expressed an intention to join.They did not finalise that and proceed to the ultimate joining, and at this stage we are considering how to progress this from here. We have not made a decision not to join but we also have not made a positive decision to join....
- "we have not decided yet on whether we will or will not proceed with that intention to join..."
- "we have not actually made a decision..."
By the way, the OGP appears to have jumped well ahead of where Minister Cormann finds himself, announcing last week that Daniel Stewart, an ANU law academic had been recruited to undertake the Independent Review of Australia's National Action Plan. That's a plan we need to develop if and when we decide to join.
There wasn't a word from the minister or officials about what has prompted the overall lack of enthusiasm for the cause and our adopted position on the fence.
The Open Government Partnership is "a global effort to make governments more open and responsive." That sounds like a universally shared democratic value.
Things appear to have changed since September when the White House made this statement supportive of the OGP and the principles that underpin it on behalf of 20 governments including Australia.
And since October/ November when according to these Department of Finance documents released to me in April in response to an FOI application, officials were saying
the Government (has been) briefed about OGP, and agreement (now reached) at least in principle across several departments and Ministerial offices that this is a good thing to pursue. Next steps will be continuing to work through the process to get formal endorsement to pursue OGP membership, formal delegation of responsibility to Finance, more consultation on the approach, and hopefully the ability to launch a consultation in the coming month or so. We need to have our National Action Plan developed by April 2014, so the timeline is tight, but doable.Hmm.
Not that there is much effort going into pondering our situation.
John Sheridan First Assistant Secretary and Procurement Coordinator told Senator Faulkner the work in Finance on the OGP is "done by myself and one of my direct reports, an EL2 who works on these matters and related Gov2.0 matters, and she is occasionally assisted by one of my other staff, a more junior staff member who works on related IT matters." Around five per cent of Sheridan's time, and all up "half an FTE at the most."
As to the previously described (months ago by Attorney General Brandis no less and reiterated in AGD Estimates earlier in the week) "interagency meetings" of officials, Mr Sheridan now says "I am hesitant to call it formally an interagency committee as opposed to just a series of meetings." The Minister took this up:
An indication of the informality of the gatherings perhaps: in responding to my FOI request for the record of the three inter agency meetings Attorney General Brandis said had been held last year Attorney General's Department told me they only had a record of one of the three!Senator Cormann: But Senator Faulkner, we don't want to get caught up in semantics either. One person's meeting is another person's committee. Let us say that there have been interdepartmental committees, even though they might have been slightly more on the informal side than on the structured side.Senator FAULKNER: What you are saying—and I am just trying to establish the facts here—is that there is no formal IDC. Is that a fair comment to make?Senator Cormann: That is right, and there has not been previously.Mr Sheridan : No, Minister, there hasn't.
Departments involved in the less than formal chitchat apparently are AGD, Finance, PM&C, Communications, DFAT, DRET,, Archives and (vale) OAIC.
Hope someone has better records than AGD.
Senator Faulkner spoke for all those who share his interest in integrity and open, transparent and accountable government when he said towards the end of the session
I am very, very disappointed that we are not strongly committed to progressing a very active role in the OGP. I am very, very disappointed with the proposed policy changes in the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the like.... I have had a longstanding interest, as I think you and perhaps officials would know about, in Australia's commitment to the OGP and broadly in relation to transparency and accountability measures in government...... My views on this have been expressed publicly and consistently for a very long time and probably have not found a lot of favour with the current government or the previous government.....My intention is to try to progress these matters and ask questions as I am asking. And I flagged with you and the department that I will continue to ask questions...Senator Faulkner earlier in the week in Attorney General's Estimates established that responsibility for the OGP had been transferred from that department to Finance on 1 April, but no one including the Attorney General could add much by way of explanation other than Senator Cormann "was quite eager that policy leadership in relation to the Open Government Partnership lie within his portfolio." Finance Secretary Tune referred to the OGP fit with the department's "ICT functions."
The PM and the invitation to Bali
As to Australian participation in Bali OGP Asia Pacific Regional Conference, officials from Prime Minister and Cabinet responded to questions from Senator Dastyari and Senator Faulkner with the news that the Prime Minister was invited to attend by President Yudhoyono on 19 March, and that we told the Indonesians he wouldn't be going on 2 May, days before meetings commenced.
John Sheridan of Finance said the PM had been invited to the OGP Steering Committee meeting that preceded the regional meeting.
Officials from PM&C had no knowledge of invitations to the Attorney General, Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Finance. When asked, Attorney General Brandis couldn't recall receiving an invitation but intends to inquire further. John Sheridan confirmed the Finance Minister had been invited to the Regional Conference.
In the end Sheridan was our only representative in an 'observer' capacity.
Below in the order in which the hearings took place are the relevant extracts from the Estimates Transcripts for PM&C, AGD, and Finance.
Estimates have another week to go. Maybe the issue will be raised with Communications, given the Minister's interest in open data, and Foreign Affairs given the foreign policy interests involved.
So far it's not a pretty picture.
Prime Minister and Cabinet
Senator FAULKNER: I do have a final question—not about that but about the OGP. I wondered if there had been any internal work in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in terms of preparation for a presentation for a speech of the Prime Minister at the Bali meeting—that is part 1 of the question. And part 2 of the question is, what is your understanding of Australia's attitude to the OGP? Does it actually support it?
Attorney General's Department