Here I've been rabbiting on for three years about Australia stepping up to join the Open Government Partnership, thinking that apart from the value we would derive from a civil society-government partnership to improve transparency accountability and public participation in Australia, that there were good foreign policy reasons why we should stand with (currently) 63 other countries who share this commitment.
I wasn't put off when it emerged that Secretary of State Clinton received no response to her invitation in August 2011 to then Foreign Minister Rudd to join; that then minister Brendan O'Connor rejected an AGD recommendation that Australia announce its intention to join in October 2011 when President Obama visited, and DFAT apparently was nowhere to be seen or heard; or when DFAT took 10 weeks last year to tell me it had no document that listed the pros and cons of Australia joining.
No I was simply heartened when then Foreign Minister Carr said he agreed in principle that Australia should join, when Secretary Varghese told Senator Faulkner that he would ensure the department went into meetings of officials to get the membership issue sorted quickly, and when then Attorney General Dreyfus made the announcement of our intention to join in May last year.
True I've been worried since about silence and disappointed with the 'clarification' of Australia's position by Minister for Finance Cormann in Estimates that "we have not decided yet on whether we will or will not proceed with that intention to join..."
But I'd thought as the Prime Minister headed to Indonesia, France, Canada and the US - all members of the OGP and Indonesia the current lead co-chair - that DFAT would ensure there was something in the briefing book about this, given that President SBY at a conference a month ago to which PM Abbott was invited but couldn't attend called on others in the Asia Pacific to join, and Presidents Obama and Harper of Canada put their names to a statement of support for the OGP when they met earlier this year.
DFAT-well at least when I was there for 14 years a long time ago- was good at linking the foreign and domestic policy dots, I thought.
Wishful or dated thinking as it turns out. DFAT only thinks about the international dimensions once we decide to join!
Senator Faulkner in Estimates for Department of Foreign affairs and Trade last week asked "how DFAT is engaging on this OGP issue, which obviously has foreign policy implications."
DFAT Secretary Varghese flicked it to Ms Katrina Cooper, First Assistant Secretary, Legal Division:
Ms Cooper:... it is being handled by the section which takes care of freedom of information and privacy.(Comment: With all due respect hardly likely to have policy heft or influence on an international organisation issue)...We are standing by waiting to see where the process heads now. Obviously we are still waiting to see whether or not we will join the OPG and, if we do, we will be engaged....
Senator Faulkner:....could I ask, Mr Varghese, if there are any resources at all in DFAT being used to look at the international policy, the foreign policy aspects of the OGP. The OGP is something that has developed a head of steam in the international community—I think that is a fair thing to say. My question to you just goes to whether DFAT has got any engagement at all on the international policy issues.
Mr Varghese : I would defer to Ms Cooper, if she is able to assist on that. It is not something I have spent time on personally...
Ms Cooper : Senator, we are not engaging in any separate process as an agency. We are engaging with other agencies and through the lead agency on this process.
Senator FAULKNER: So that means you have 60-odd nations having a major international conference on Australia's doorstep—it does not matter where it is, but it is our near neighbour with whom we have such a very important relationship—in Bali. Our prime minister is invited to it. We have, as you would know, Mr Varghese, from previous evidence at this estimates committee, seen the Secretary of State of the US encouraging Australia's involvement. We have had a senior minister in the UK government doing the same. I am surprised that those elements effectively receive no focus at all from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. So here we have a movement that appears to be growing in strength in the international community—and that is the only point I am making—but no assessment or analysis—except involvement is not a core issue for your department. Involvement and being the lead agency belongs to another department—the Department of Finance. It is those international elements that I am referring to. And I would have thought within DFAT those sorts of assessments would be made as a matter of course, but you are assuring me that is not the case?
Mr Varghese : Yes, I suppose it is a bit chicken and egg. If we were a member of the Open Government Partnership then obviously we would be taking a much more active interest in its international dimensions. You could equally argue that in order to assess whether and when to become a member we should be au fait with the international dimensions.
Three years of water under the bridge, but it is never too late. Secretary, don't wait for Finance to call. There are foreign policy issues relevant in making up our minds to join. Get a seat at the table and put someone with some vision in the chair.
We missed the opportunity to do something on this in Indonesia.
The Prime Minister is in Canada and the US this week... ah dreaming again.
The relevant extract from the transcript follows including questioning about the PM's invitation to the Bali conference