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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy happies

Lots that could be said but I know right across the country you have better things to do than listen, so best wishes and thanks for your interest and contributions throughout the year. Back soon.
Jacques-Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Australian Information Commissioner speaks out

In a recent speech Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan flagged important developments since the Freedom of Information reforms of 2010. In addition to highlighting some positives he also explored a couple of gloomier themes including the absence of government leadership on the transparency and open government fronts at a time when these issues enjoy more prominence than before in international affairs. 

Time for others to speak up as well.

 A few comments on aspects of what Professor McMillan said:

"The number of requests to agencies and ministers has increased, from an historic low of 21,587 in 2009-10 to 24,944 in 2012-13, including an 85% increase in the number of non-personal requests. which includes requests from journalists, parliamentarians, researchers, lawyers and community groups.."
( An 85% increase sounds impressive but the total number of non-personal applications in 2012-2013 was around 5000 across the entire government. Pathetically low in my humble.. Given the fact the FOI act proclaims Parliament's intention "to promote Australia's representative democracy by contributing towards..increasing public participation in Government processes, with a view to promoting better-informed decision-making and increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government's activities" maybe we should be pleased with small steps in this direction.)

"The estimated cost of administering the FOI Act rose from $27.5M in 2009-10 to $45.3M in 2012-13, plus an additional $3.1M for the Information Publication Scheme and approximately $5M for OAIC FOI and information policy work.."
(The $45 million represents agency estimates. How much of the cost can be attributed to inefficiency, failure to invest in technology, refusal to make sought after information available promptly and at lower cost without the need for formal applications, gaming the system by putting applicants through the run around, we don't know.  Dr Hawke apparently didn't inquire. Probably the tip of an iceberg but take a look at the pedantic, bureaucratic and no doubt costly to the taxpayer correspondence generated by applications made through Righttoknow.)

"The number of applications for external merit review has risen – from 110 applications to the AAT in 2009-10 to 456 to the OAIC in 2012-13.. In 2010 the Government estimated that the OAIC’s budget would support 100 staff to cover privacy, FOI and information policy functions. This staffing level has never been met..there has been a steady increase in the OAIC’s caseload – in the last year alone, a 20% increase in FOI and privacy phone enquiries, a 28% increase in written enquiries, a 9% increase in privacy complaints, a 13% increase in FOI complaints and a 10% increase in IC review applications. Another new unfunded OAIC task is to prepare for major reforms to the Privacy Act that commence in March 2014 and that require the OAIC to prepare more than 50 legislative instruments, codes, guideline statements and guidance notes. The inevitable consequence is a delay in throughput. At the end of September 2013 there were 60 unresolved FOI complaints, 451 unresolved privacy complaints, and 510 unresolved IC reviews. More worrying is that new FOI complaints were not being allocated to a case officer until 196 days after receipt, and IC review applications until 228 days after receipt. This is contrary to a declared object of the FOI Act, ‘to facilitate and promote public access to information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost’ (s 3(4)).
(Over seven months delay until a case officer is assigned to an FOI review application is not just contrary to an object of the act it's the sign of a system not working. Dr Hawke doesn't seem to have put the ruler over how they do things at the OAIC, but resources are clearly inadequate. Labor carries the blame for this failure to September 2013. The Abbott Government has maintained silence on the subject since. )

"Cultural change is occurring within government.."
(Maybe. But users of the act could cite many indications that it's patchy at best. Evidence, in particular something more than the Commissioner's observations, would be welcome on this one.)

"A related concern is that agencies may seek to game the system by denying access in the expectation that review applications will sit in an OAIC queue (a perception that we counter by active management of cases from the date of receipt).
(From personal experience DFAT and AGD have form in this respect as does Immigration. The OAIC knows more about any gaming going on than the rest of us - it could name names to good effect; repercussions, something more than a 'tut tut', would be even better.)

The Commissioner was right to draw attention to two other major failings:

Government leadership in promoting FOI and open government:
".... It has been disappointing that the special Executive position of Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information was discontinued in November 2011; there was no Government response to the report, Review of Charges under the FOI Act, which the OAIC was asked to prepare for Government in February 2012; there was no government response to other seminal OAIC publications, such as the Principles on Open Public Sector Information and the survey of proactive publication practices, Open public sector information: from principles to practice ; there was no ministerial contribution to or representation at the OAIC event to mark the historic 30th anniversary of the FOI Act in 2012;[8] there was no take-up of a suggestion in an IC review decision that ministerial appointments diaries be published on the web, as they are in some other jurisdictions;[9] legislation to entirely exempt the Parliamentary departments from the FOI Act was moved quickly through the Parliament in May 2013 before the Hawke review had reported, and contrary to a submission to that review from the Parliamentary departments;[10] and in three IC review decisions in 2012-13, I had to reverse decisions in the Prime Minister’s Department and Office, declining to release correspondence from a former Prime Minister, diary entries concerning meeting dates with cross-bench MPs, and the acquittal of Parliamentary entitlements.[11]"
(Some positive words from the top about transparency and accountability followed by meaningful deeds are three months overdue and counting.)

Australia falling behind world leadership: 
"A third area of disappointment is that Australia, one of the first countries to enact FOI legislation and more recently to launch Gov 2.0 strategies, is now falling behind the open government momentum in some other countries.[12]. We have been slow to join the international Open Government Partnership that was formed in September 2011 and that now boasts 61 member countries. We do not have a detailed national open government action plan, as do the UK, Canada, the US and many other countries. Nor have we adopted the Open Data Charter launched by the G8 nations in June this year.
It is important also that we echo messages from abroad that point to the profound philosophical shift occurring in the open government agenda. An example is the opening sentence of the 2013 Communique of the G8 nations – ‘As leaders of the G8, we are committed to open economies, open societies and open governments as the basis of lasting growth and stability’. Another illustration is the observation of UK Prime Minister David Cameron in opening the annual summit of the Open Government Partnership in London in November 2013:
[F]or years I’ve argued that there is a golden thread of conditions which allow countries to thrive: the rule of law, the absence of conflict, the absence of corruption, the presence of strong property rights and institutions. And open government should be woven deep into the heart of this thread."
(As chair of the G20 we need to get our act together, pronto, reaffirming our commitment to the OGP, setting up a partnership with civil society to develop a national action plan that contains 'stretch commitments' across a range of transparency, accountability and open government priorities including endorsing and acting upon the Open Data Charter. The only country to date to join the OGP and then back out is Russia. Not desirable company or a lead to follow.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Freedom wars: preparations underway

In Opposition both Prime Minister Abbott and Attorney General Brandis spoke of the freedom wars. 

The guns are now being primed.

The announcement by Senator Brandis of the appointment of Tim Wilson of the Institute of Public Affairs as a Human Rights Commissioner follows last week's Freedoms reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission to review Commonwealth legislation to identify provisions that unreasonably encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges including freedom of speech.

With regard to the Wilson appointment, Senator Brandis explained:
During the election campaign, I promised to create at least one “Freedom Commissioner” at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Next year, I intend to bring forward reforms to the Commission. In the meantime, I have asked Mr Wilson to focus on the protection of the traditional liberal democratic and common law rights, including, in particular, the rights recognised by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 19 states:
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 19 includes the right to seek information.

So it remains to be seen whether the ALRC and Mr Wilson interpret their respective briefs as encompassing the Freedom of Information Act - Dr Hawke acknowledged a more comprehensive review was needed than he had undertaken - and the chilling effect of hundreds of secrecy provisions in Commonwealth laws identified close to four years ago in an ALRC report that has been undisturbed and gathering dust in the Attorney General's Department ever since.

The Institute of Public Affairs is strong on freedoms but less so on other rights, arguing earlier this year that even self regulation should be optional for the media. (Since 2000 media organisations in the conduct of journalism have been exempt from the Privacy Act if they self regulate with no reference to the adequacy of self imposed standards. There are plenty out there that don't consider they do this anywhere near well enough. I'm sure in any event that the Attorney General and Mr Wilson know the ICCPR contains provisions other than Article 19 including Article 17 which puts protection of privacy up there as a human right as well.)

Mr Wilson is no slouch at utilising his right to access information, attracting the ire of one government agency in 2011 for making 750 FOI applications in a four month period including 440 on one day.

High Court wraps Honours and Governor General's functions

The High Court in Kline v Official Secretary to the Governor General [2013] HCA 52) ruled that documents concerning the operation of the Honours system are not within scope of the Freedom of Information Act. The decision ends a long running legal tussle regarding interpretation and application of s 6A which places the Official Secretary's office (among its other support functions, it is the Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat) outside the operation of the act "unless the document relates to matters of an administrative nature."

The unanimous decision follows earlier decisions in this case to the same effect by the Freedom of Information Commissioner, the Deputy President of the AAT and the Full Court of the Federal Court. The law as it stands therefore is now well and truly settled. 

However some may struggle with the distinction made by the High Court and in the earlier decisions between a document held by the Office of Official Secretary concerning administration of the Order of Australia, not subject to FOI, and a document that relates to matters of an administrative nature undertaken by the office, which are subject to the act;  with the analogy drawn between the Governor General's functions and the judicial functions of the courts [45-47]; and with the view [53] that relevant "criteria for the making of awards are explained in the nomination form, which is a document that is available to the public."
(See what you think- Nomination form (pdf)).

The Court upheld the decision of the Full Federal Court in ruling that s 6A does not extend to documents concerning processes and activities associated with the exercise of the Governor General's substantive powers and functions.

In policy terms the decision raises the question whether section 6A delivers adequate and sufficient transparency and accountability regarding the Office of the Governor General. The office supports the Governor General in the exercise of her powers and functions which include representative in Australia of the head of state, President of the Federal Executive Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, as well as Chancellor of the Order of Australia. The window of FOI scrutiny is limited to matters of an administrative nature - except where they are associated with the exercise of the Governor-General's substantive powers and functions. For this reason for example working manuals, policy guidelines and criteria used in making Honours Award decisions are not publicly available.

In their joint judgement Chief Justice French and Justices Crennan, Kiefel and Bell relied upon
  • the context- attaching weight to the fact that the Governor General is not an agency or prescribed authority for the purposes of the act: "Thus the processes and activities of government, which are opened to increased public scrutiny by the operation of the FOI Act, do not include those associated with the exercise of the Governor-General's substantive powers and functions, many (even most) of which are exercised in public. Independence from government and the public is important in relation to the exercise of the various responsibilities of the Governor-General, including, but not limited to, the making of decisions. Furthermore, freedom from interference or scrutiny by members of the public (or other branches of government) is an essential aspect of the making of decisions in relation to the General Division of the Order. [34]
  • the words used in s 6A: observing that the common connotation of the words "matters of an administrative nature" mean documents which concern the management and administration of office resources [41].
  • and statements in relevant secondary materials: "In brief, s 6A(1) of the FOI Act, which was inserted in 1984, drew upon the language of ss 5(1) and 6, which were included in the FOI Act as originally enacted. In the relevant parliamentary debates, Senator Evans described the operation of ss 5 and 6 and explained their object. He said [70]:"courts, judicial offices, certain industrial tribunals and their registries..are not exempt from the operation of the[FOI]Act so far as their administrative procedures, properly so-called are concerned.[49]. The Senator went on to explain that the inclusion of ss 5 and 6 would secure a legitimate public interest in "efficient administration" and was not intended to intrude on the independence of the judiciary. [50]. 

In a separate judgement Justice Gageler after examining the history of s 6A and related matters in more detail reached the same conclusion: all requested documents relate to the "administration" of the Order of Australia," but none relates to matters of an "administrative nature" within the meaning of s 6A of the FOI Act. None, therefore, falls within the scope of the FOI Act." [79]  

    Both the judgments ([41] and [72]) conclude that Beinstein v Family Court of Australia [2008] FCA 1138; (2008) 170 FCR 382 was wrongly decided where it took a broader view of the meaning of "relates to matters of an administrative nature" in s 5 of the FOI act.

      Friday, December 13, 2013

      Accountability Roundtable Integrity Awards

      Mark Dreyfus QC carried off the Button and Melissa Parke and Judith Moylan jointly the Missen - more from AAP.  

      The late Alan Missen by the way not only crossed the floor 41 times as noted in the report but was a loud and persistent voice for a freedom of information act among many other causes. As chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs he played a key role in the shape of legislation as passed in 1981 and kept a close eye on it until his death in 1986.

      Wednesday, December 11, 2013

      Who's up for Integrity awards?

      The Accountability Roundtable Parliamentary Awards for the 43rd parliament, that is the pre September election parliament, will be announced tomorrow at an event  at 5.30 in Committee Room 2S3, Parliament House, Canberra.  

      The Button and Missen awards are respectively to the minister and backbencher who "have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the public interest in the performance of his or her role with
 Political Courage, in one or more of the following areas

      • Supporting the principles and practice of transparent and accountable government
      • Contributing effectively and constructively to parliamentary debate, committee deliberations and/or policy development in a way that promotes and/or supports good parliamentary practice and the institution of parliament.
      • Pursuing a change in government policy or practice whether generally or in response to a constituency issue or injustice.
      • Protecting peoples’ political and civil rights."
      Then Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner and then backbencher Petro Georgiou were award recipients in 2010. 

      Picking winners in this sort of contest is of course a no win game.

      But Senator Faulkner would have to be in with a strong chance for the Missen to match his Button, along with Senators Xenophon, Ludlam, Rhiannon and from the House, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Melissa Parke and Judith Moylan.  

      Then Attorney General  Dreyfus may grab the Button for meritoriously rescuing whistleblower protection legislation from the too hard box.

      If you are interested in attending the event email with name and contact details.

      Trust further impaired when secrecy preferred to transparency

      Oh dear, that 'restore trust' pledge was vitally important to Mr Abbott in pre-election mode when he thought it amounted simply to 'say what we do and do what we say'.

      It's hard to recall another new government over the last 30 years that didn't bother to at least say it was going to be more open, transparent and accountable. Even if it just amounted to paper thin rhetoric. But 80 days in, that seems to be the case with the Abbott government

      Sure there have been a couple of specific promises, as part of Treasurer Hockey's deal with The Greens to scrap the debt ceiling, and in Communications Minister Turnbull's plans for NBN Co.

      But Operation Sovereign Border laid the foundation stone for closed shop. And building the edifice hasn't stopped there.

      The stock standard 'we don't comment on intelligence or security matters' is proving a convenient shield in light of developments at home and abroad concerning what our intelligence agencies get up to, and the vacuuming of our meta data by Telstra and others. That's just for starters, as Deborah Snow outlined on Saturday. 

      The Greens Senator Ludlam moved a motion in the Senate to establish a committee to look into electronic surveillance overreach. Sounds sensible and in line with developments elsewhere but as Senator Ludlam said    
      I will make this statement because I understand that there is no support either from the government, the Liberal-National Party, or from the Labor Party for a fairly simple committee reference into electronic surveillance overreachThe story started obviously with the United States government where inquiries are well and truly underway. Congressional hearings have been held, bills have been drafted, votes have been taken and inquiries are underway. It is the same in the UK. It is the same in France, Germany and countries in South America including Brazil—everywhere in fact except here in Australia where this bipartisan denial and conspiracy of silence to avoid the issues are yet again on display here today. This is the second time I have put a reference and, in defiance I would say to the majority will of the people of this country who want to know what is being done in our name, it is about to be voted down again. It will not be the last time I bring a motion such as this forward. I commend it to the chamber.
      Government public interest immunity claims or refusal to respond to questions had a real workout in Senate estimates. Not for the first time of course, but perhaps scaling new heights. Following a refusal to produce documents in respect of OSB the Senate yesterday 
      referred the matter to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee.

      Government agencies have fallen into line in refusing FOI access to incoming government briefs, the latest Communications with the Treasury template proving useful. You have to say a stunning uniform turnaround across government agencies by 'independent' decision makers!

      The government response to weeks of revelations about dodgy or misuse of parliamentary entitlements was weak and half hearted. A further serve for cynics is that that neither major party has said a word on the subject in Parliament since. The Greens Senator Milne continues to push for a National Integrity Commission which could help to a degree. As Paul Farrell recounts in The Guardian, trying to dig deeper than published information involves the FOI runaround - giving up seems easier and certainly less costly. Proving 'following the money ain't easy.'

      On that FOI review file sitting on his desk, Attorney General Senator Brandis told Senate Estimates the government intended to move ahead and agreed with Dr Hawke that the legislation should be reformed.  But Attorney, if I may: 
      the Hawke review was a flawed process-no discussion or dialogue with users and experts, skewed terms of reference, no investigation into how the legislation is being administered, no examination of best practice on the home front let alone internationally. And as Dr Hawke observes in Recommendation 1, the review fell short of the needed comprehensive review of the operation of the act and the OAIC. Be wary of advice to cherry pick recommendations before you find a place at the table for some from outside government who have another perspective. Thanks.

      Then there is the continuing silence from the government on the Open Government Partnership.

      Despite it all, good to be back on Terra Firma.

      Friday, November 15, 2013

      Short shut for Open and Shut

      If only I had the time before heading off on the high seas for two weeks, I would have said something about:
      • The Open Government Guide launched by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative  during the Open Governmernt Partnership Summit in London. The guide lays out practical steps that could  be taken to improve transparency, accountability and citizen participation in 19 areas, from public services and open data to elections, environment and illicit financial flows. The Guide links to other resources - over 330 case studies and country examples, and external resources on standards. Should be particularly useful when, hopefully, not if,  we get around to discussion of a national action plan, assuming the Open Government Partnership file eventually reaches the top of the pile in Canberra.

      • The statutory review of the Queensland Right to Information Act and the Information Privacy Act. Submissions closed 15 November.

      •  Information about the state of the game in all those annual reports, the OAIC for one.

      • The iappANZ Privacy Summit in Sydney on 25 November with former UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas just one of the draws.

      • The apparent first instance of exercise of power by the South Australian Minister for the Public Sector under section 39(9) of the FOI act in issuing an assessment of the public interest that in effect limits review of an FOI determination - a near relation to the conclusive ministerial certificate of an earlier darker era in other jurisdictions.

      Be back sporadically, and more constantly around the end of the month.

      Sunday, November 10, 2013

      Out of the box thinkers interested in a pot of gold?

      Those who constantly muse 'why don't they just..', 

      Here's your chance.

      This Global competition launched at the OGP summit in London by Making All Voices Count: A Grand Challenge for Development (a partnership between USAID, (UK) DFID, Sweden and Omidyar Network) seeks new, original and innovative ideas from companies, organisations, government agencies and individuals to increase government transparency and accountability focusing on one or more of these topics:
      • Fiscal Transparency
      • Access to Information
      • Disclosures Related to Elected or Senior Public Officials; and
      • Citizen Engagement
      "Making All Voices Count supports innovative, out-of-the-box ideas and initiatives to boost citizen engagement and government responsiveness. Inspired by the principles of the OGP, this Grand Challenge for Development focuses global attention on creative solutions—including those that use mobile and web technology—to ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard and to increase both the incentive, and capacity, of governments to listen and respond."
      The Competition opens on November 12, 2013 and closes on December 6, 2013.

      The winner will receive a £65,000 grant and runner ups each £35,000. Seven smaller prizes of £5,000 will be awarded. The best applicants will compete through both a public online voting and a peer-review system. The top 10 semi-finalists will be flown to Nairobi for a Global Innovation and Award Week.

      Shake off those cobwebs ....

      Saturday, November 09, 2013

      Parliamentary entitlement reform way short of the mark

      The announcement today that the Abbott government accepts changes to the system of parliamentary entitlements are necessary is welcome, warrants a few headlines and will enable ministers to parry questions when parliament resumes next week. Former ALP special ministers of state Ludwig and Gray who sat on reform of the system for years presumably shouldn't raise the issue even if given the chance.

      But the measures announced in this Media Release and Attachment issued by Special Minister of State Ronaldson fall way short of what is needed. And the policy process - dusting off, then cherry-picking from a report that has been sitting around largely unnoticed for the last three years, with an added twist here and there - is fail grade by any measure.

      The changes mainly concern use of travel entitlements. No surprise following the mainstream media's belated discovery of information published since 2008 on the Department of Finance website.

      But they won't deliver a comprehensive, easily accessible, timely, searchable method for disclosure of what taxpayers' money is paid to, for or on behalf of parliamentarians and how that money is used as they go about their business. 

      Forget the petty cash details, much more is involved,

      Quite apart from the rules regarding entitlements that need tightening, and in this respect the government is at least moving in the right direction, there is no mention of any change to the timeliness of information published by Finance regarding payments it makes. These details are put on the web months after the event, and nowhere close to real time. The latest published are for the six months to December 2012.

      Ditto, regarding the separate payments made to for or on behalf of parliamentarians by the Department of the House of Representatives, Department of Senate and Department of Parliamentary Services. They aren't published at all.  

      No mention either of any intention to remedy the hole in the accountability system that parliament created when it rushed through earlier in the year legislation to exempt the parliamentary departments from the Freedom of Information Act  The departments are collectively allocated around $170 million each year.

      Then there are the payments made on behalf of ministers by their departments, for transport and hospitality for example. None of this information is published.

      Minister Ronaldson made no mention of what is really needed on the transparency front - full transparency in the form of a single website that brings together information for each parliamentarian regarding all payments from whatever source.Together with other disclosables such as each member's interests as recorded in the mandatory register of interests. 

      As to process, Policy 101 might suggest  a better result on a hot topic such as this would involve a process encompassing an acknowledgment that change is warranted, throwing out ideas on what might be done to achieve agreed public purposes, and inviting inputs on how we might set new high standards and define the system that might deliver them.

      Neither the Coalition government nor the ALP in government or opposition seem much interested in process or reform, of this kind.

      Friday, November 08, 2013

      The ABC boosts FOI stocks

      Michael McKinnon is set to join the ABC in 2014 as Freedom of Information editor after pioneering this role through stints at The Courier Mail, The Australian and most recently the Seven Network.

      Best wishes.

      Linton Besser, already recruited from the Sydney Morning Herald and others hired to boost investigative journalism know their way through the FOI maze as well. 

      Should make for interesting discussion around the water cooler about the ABC's broad approach to interpretation of its own part exemption from the Freedom of information Act.
      Wonder if others in the media pack will FOI the salary packages of the new team?

      'Peak transparency'- surely this isn't as good as it gets?

      Murphy's law has been top of my mind in this week of moving house. The experience confirms you can never know enough in advance about that one.

      A few things from a little reading in the wash up to the Open Government Partnership Summit in London:

      Thirty seven countries each made a new stretch commitment. 

      Jane Dudman in The Guardian, cites Indian human rights campaigner Aruna Roy's telling question at the final session to Secretary of State Kerry:
      "There's more transparency in governments, there's more accountability,".."And at the same time, there are more restrictive laws being passed by all governments today than ever before and there is an attempt at surveillance by my government and your governments. Why is this happening?"
      In light of this trend and counter trend, Alex Howard of Columbia University queries whether we are experiencing 'peak open':
      Scrolling back through thousands of #OGP13 tweets, watching conference pictures, or reading the summit agenda or fact sheets doesn't capture the mix of excitement, optimism, skepticism and anger that attendees could feel on every floor of the conference. Swirling underneath the professional glitz of an international summit were strong undercurrents of concern about its impact upon governments reluctant to cede power, reveal corruption or risk embarrassment upon disclosure of simple incompetence. The OGP summit took place at a moment where 21st century technology-fueled optimism has splashed up against the foundations of institutions created in the previous century.
      Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Indonesian president's delivery unit takes the OGP lead co chair position, putting citizen engagement up as one theme for 2014.

      Meanwhile mostly silence from Canberra rather than any public acknowledgement by the government of the importance of transparency and accountability. And nothing on the OGP and the membership requirement of a national action plan to be developed jointly with civil society.

      However Attorney General Brandis is ready to roll on his freedom priorities:
      ''It is a very important part of my agenda to re-centre that debate so that when people talk about rights, they talk about the great liberal democratic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of worship and freedom of the press.''
      As access to information is an important element of freedom of expression, here's hoping he is interested also in removing some statutory barriers to the exercise of that right.

      Foreign Minister Bishop meanwhile is in Indonesia this week at the Bali Democracy Forum amid revelations about Australia doing its bit there as part of the co-operative intelligence-gathering arrangements between the 'five eyes.' A year ago at the forum Prime Minister Gillard was hot to trot about democratic practices but failed to mention the OGP and the opportunity to translate words into action.

      It might prove a juggle in the somewhat uncomfortable circumstances, but hopefully Ms Bishop has something on topic about the OGP in the briefing notes this time round.

      Tuesday, November 05, 2013

      Slow time for Open and Shut but not for Allan Kessing

      I'm in the middle of moving house, with a brief overseas visit to follow so thin pickings here through to the end of November. No sympathy sought or needed of course.

      And any discombobulation at the sight of those packing cases not worth mentioning in the same breath as Allan Kessing, regrouping after the devastating loss of his home in the bushfires a few weeks back. Friends and supporters of Allan (email me at for details of how you can contribute) have helped put a slight spring in his step but he still has plenty of 'why' moments.

      Sunday, November 03, 2013

      Australia should get with the strength and square the circle on transparency

      With British Prime Minister Cameron, UK Foreign Secretary Hague, US Secretary of State Kerry, Indonesian Vice President Boediono and many world leaders siding with, supporting and advocating for transparency and open government at the Open Government Partnership summit in London, a strange silence and disjuncture here as ministers in the Abbott Government maintain silence to allow the facts to speak for themselves. 

      The facts suggest a clampdown and drawback as detailed by Bianca Hall in Fairfax Media today. No sign to date of enthusiasm for a journey towards new frontiers.

      At the heavy-weight OGP meeting in London, Australia, to assume the chair of the G 20 in December, was represented by the Government's Chief Technology Officer. I hope he managed to make it somewhere close to the top tables. 

      I don't know what Mr Sheridan had to say while there but the words 'Open Government Partnership' are yet to pass Abbott government ministerial lips here at home.The public record amounts to an announcement of intention to join by then Attorney General Dreyfus in May, and a supporting statement for civil society and mechanisms such as the OGP issued on our behalf by the White House in September,

      Following London, Indonesia is the co-chair with Mexico for the next two years.
      Vice President Boedino (who knows a bit about our system and our leaders having attended the University of WA and Monash and had a spell at the ANU in Canberra) told the OGP Summit two things will characterize Indonesia’s approach during this period:
      First, we see OGP as an innovative movement that is powered by real actions. It is a platform for sharing experiences to inspire each other to act. We believe that openness is basically about improving governance and enhancing policy effectiveness by more fully accommodating the people’s voice in the decision-making that affects their daily lives, thus creating broader civic ownership of government programs. Second, we hope OGP could also contribute to the success of the global development agenda, particularly the Post-2015 Development Agenda. OGP could provide insights, best practices, and innovations on how to strengthen governance, particularly for developing countries. Additionally, OGP could diseminate experiences on how to take advantage of information technology as an affordable and quick means to improve good governance.
      Indonesian media are highlighting the fact that apart from 61 member countries the World Bank Group, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations Development Programme have pledged support to OGP.

      Just why we aren't on the front foot about the opportunities remains a mystery. Unless we really don't believe in this stuff.

      I wrote to the Prime Minister about the OGP two weeks ago having previously written to him, Senator Brandis, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull. 

      This acknowledgement is the sum total of responses:
      Thank you for your message to the Prime Minister..
      Below is a copy for your records. Responses prepared to your message will generally be emailed to you. If you have supplied a postal address, a response may be sent to you via Australia
      Post. In some cases, your message may be forwarded to other Federal Ministers
      for their consideration.

      This is an automatically generated email. Please do not reply to this email as this address is not monitored.

      Submitted on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 5:03pm

      Title: Mr
      First name: Peter
      Family name: Timmins
      Email address:
      Your address: 2004/73 Victoria St, Potts Point, Sydney, NSW, 2011
      Subject: Open Government partnership and relations with Indonesia
      Congratulations and best wishes. Your meeting with the President of Indonesia
      on 30 September offers the opportunity to indicate that your government will
      continue on with the announced intention by Labor in May this year that
      Australia will join the Open Government Partnership. The OGP was launched by
      President Obama in September 2011. Sixty countries have now joined or
      announced they intend to join. New Zealand is the latest with Prime Minister
      Key today making an announcement to this effect after a meeting with Prime
      Minister Cameron in London. The UK and Indonesia are the current co-chairs of
      the initiative.  Australia will benefit at home and abroad by identifying
      with others who share our interest in transparent and open government,
      combating corruption, and harnessing new technologies to increase public
      participation in government.

      Peter Timmins
      Open and Shut

      Ah that trust deficit......

      Friday, November 01, 2013

      British PM makes the case for open government and open institutions

      In the opening address to the Open Government Partnership British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised four big things leaders, politicians, businesses, civil society and transparency activists must do:
      "First, we’ve got to go out there and really make the argument for open government.We can’t just sit there and assume there is some great, inexorable trend towards political freedom....
      Second, we’ve got to translate words into deeds. We can’t just talk about open government – we’ve got to deliver....
      Third, in developed countries we’ve got to practice what we preach. When we talk about transparency elsewhere, we’ve got to show it at home too....
      (Fourth) We’ve got to give our full-throated support for groups that promote transparency – not least the Open Government Partnership.This is a truly exciting institution. Rather than getting bogged down in endless communiqués, the OGP is all about concrete reform...
      On practice what you preach, Mr Cameron announced that in line with a G8 commitment the UK will establish a central register of company beneficial ownership. And that it will be open to the public. (And he's probably never even heard of former NSW minister Eddie Obeid.)

      Thursday, October 31, 2013

      Open data tick for Australia but information on foreign aid short of the standard

      Mixed results for Australia in two reports released in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership Summit in London: a comparative good showing on publication of government data, but just making it into the fair group for transparency in the publication of information on our foreign aid program in accordance with the international standard. One recommendation to lift performance in that area is that Australia's OGP national action plan should include 'stretch commitments' to reach the standard. Would be great to hear from that sector as CSO interest in the OGP sparks up. 

      OGP London

      High energy at the Civil Society Day in London yesterday, with privacy and surveillance a hot topic.  A smorgasbord of important sessions are scheduled for the OGP Summit over the next two days. For those interested from afar, click on a session's name to see its live video stream.

      Tuesday, October 29, 2013

      Allan Kessing update

      Allan tells me that generous people continue to deposit money in his account, all helping to move him from prone to somewhere closer to upright. If you can and would like to help please email me at or phone 02 83569622 for details of how to go about this.

      Linda Mottram on 702 ABC Sydney Mornings is broadcasting from his neck of the woods tomorrow Wednesday from 8.30am until 11am-if near a radio or online you might hear Allan's story. 
      Spot the buck-Allan is not the only one now poking around. But ever hopeful:
      Not exactly pluvial but at least, kinda-sorta, real rain this evening though even that is diminishing as I write. Better than nothing which is what we've had here for the last 3 months. I keep ...err, make that kept a weather journal for the past 20yrs and had only checked it on the morning of that dire day to see when the last real soaking had occurred. Here's hoping I see Noah getting out his tools in the morning. Thanks for everything,

      Friday, October 25, 2013

      OGP Summit-hold that Australian chair!!

      A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General said today:

      * The Commonwealth Government supports the principles of open government.

      * Australia appreciates the opportunity to attend the Open Government Partnership Summit in London.

      * Australia will be represented at the OGP Summit in London by Mr John Sheridan and Mr James Kelly. Mr Sheridan is the Australian Government Chief Technology Officer & Procurement Coordinator and First Assistant Secretary at the Department of Finance. Mr Kelly is Minister Counsellor (Economic), who is the senior Treasury official at Post.

      1. Good news that the government supports the principles of open government, although that may give rise to a wry smile or two around the traps. But not a single flourish about the importance of transparency and accountability, or word from the Prime Minister or a ministerial colleague to this effect.

      2. Welcome news that the government will be represented in London.But no specific commitment here that the Abbott Government intends continuing on the path to join the OGP, as announced by then Attorney General Dreyfus in May, and implicit in a White House statement issued on behalf of the Australian and other governments on 23 September.

      3. I'm sure John Sheridan is a capable, fine Chief Technology Officer who has a good background in Gov 2.0 and open data issues through his positions past and present in the Australian Government Information Management Office in the Department of Finance. I'm  sure he's also full bottle or very interested in democratic principles and practices and the scope to improve democracy through practical commitments to advance transparency and accountability on a range of other fronts across many areas of government. And keen to pick up best practice ideas in London for partnering back at home with civil society in the development of a national action plan-assuming it's full steam ahead with that membership application. Ditto Mr Kelly - who would be wise not to bend too many ears in London with the wisdom behind the Treasury Blue Book decision or in explaining the government's satisfaction to date with the limited transparency arrangements that apply to the use of parliamentary entitlements...sorry it's late.

      The only other Australians attending that I'm aware of are Open Australia co-founders Dr Matthew Landauer (courtesy of the OGP Support Unit) and Katherine Szuminska.

      Travel well and

      Go Team!! 

      Update-Memo to the Team and others following the OGP with interest: take a look at the London 'buzz' as gathered by Toby McIntosh.

      Blackout over payments to state politicians

      Lack of transparency is a feature of all the state and territory arrangements for payment and use of entitlements as recounted here often over the years. 

      In the wake of media interest in our Federal pollies, Sean Nicholls for The Sydney Morning Herald and Rosemary Bolger for the Launceston Examiner both tried to take a look at the state counterparts and ran into a brick wall when asking for information in NSW and Tasmania. I think those who try it elsewhere will also come up empty handed other than dated global figures, if anywhere tucked away in annual reports.

      One of the contributing factors is that the parliaments/parliamentary departments are not covered by the relevant state or territory freedom of information legislation. Of course, better than this, all the relevant information should be published on line on a single web site, in close to real time, and fully searchable, but FOI coverage would be one small step in the right direction. 

      That this isn't the case is a scandalous gap in the transparency and accountability systems.

      I had been working on the basis that FOI coverage of the Parliament was the situation in Tasmania. Not, as noted in 2009, that anyone has shouted this from the rooftops or that it is obvious from a glance at the Right to Information Act.

      My analysis then and now is that the Tasmanian Parliament as a public authority is subject to the Right to Information Act with respect to information in its possession that relates to matters of administration. This would seem to extend to payments to and acquittals by members, and other use of public funds managed by the offices of the clerks.

      But Rosemary Bolger writes
      Entitlements are signed off by the clerks of the upper or lower houses and remain forever hidden, protected by an exemption from Right to Information. Why the secrecy? I suspect it's more laziness than a deliberate attempt to bury the figures. 
      When I contacted her she said this is what she was told eventually when someone at Parliament House answered her question. I suggested she should take it further.  

      The media in other states and territories should be making a fuss about the opaque system that operates and demanding better. 

      The citizenry should join in and start with their local member.

      Thursday, October 24, 2013

      Allan Kessing stunned and grateful

      Thank you to those who in words and deeds reminded Allan Kessing this week he has friends and supporters even if he hasn't met most. Pledges of well over $3k were made this week and indications are it will go higher. If you are in a position to provide financial assistance please email me at or telephone 02 83569622 and I can tell you how best to go about this.
       From Allan's email a few days ago:
      I am stunned at such a response but feel uncomfortable about accepting such amounts from individuals whom I don't even know...I was on site this morning at Dawn and there was a brief flurry of "silly" rain. The 5 day old embers are still hot enough that when the drops hit the ash it sends up plumes like mini volcanoes. Already the birds have returned and are enjoying the feast of the various seed stores that I had in old metal garbage bins on a pallet. Because it had burnt beneath them they'd mostly tipped over so they think it is a Cornucopia. The strangest things remain unburned, some plants are parched but a metre on either side is black. I retrieved from one pile of ash a lustre ware bowl, delicate at the best of times, unharmed. Truly a strange experience seeing how the land I've known for 30 yrs looks beneath its green clothing.

      "The truly bizarre thing is that by next morning there were fresh roo droppings on the inexplicably unburnt areas of lawn, surrounded by charcoal. Perhaps they have a taste for cooked food?"  

      Global Transparency Week

      From 24 October and concluding with the Open Government Partnership Summit 31 October-1 November it's Global Transparency Week. Plenty of weighty topics on the agenda for the Civil Society Day in London on 30 October and at the Summit.  I'm aware that Matthew Landauer and Katherine Szuminska of the Open Australia Foundation will be in London running ragged to keep up but interested in hearing from any other Australians who will be there. In view of the continuing silence it seems almost certain that the government won't be represented. On the home front Denis Muller and Michelle Grattan on The Conversation both comment about early signs of a new/old transparency normal.

      Wednesday, October 23, 2013

      OGP Summit-anyone in the Australian chair?

      In a week's time the Open Government Partnership Summit will take place in London. Over 1000 delegates from 60 countries are expected.

      UK Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude will host the meeting. Indonesia,"in many respects our most important relationship" according to Prime Minister Abbott is co-chair.

      Minister Maude said the priority for the summit is "to set out ambitious transparency commitments for all participants and to embed the organisation as a credible force for making governments more open, accountable and efficient, and societies healthier and more prosperous."

      At the G8 earlier this year, British Prime Minster David Cameron pledged that the UK’s leadership of the OGP would “drive a transparency revolution in every corner of the world.” As the host of this year’s Summit, the UK government hopes this remarkable gathering of open government reformers will advance measurable progress in at least five key policy areas: - See more at:

      The UK also currently chairs the G8. Linking the two earlier this year, Prime Minister Cameron pledged that the UK’s leadership of the OGP would “drive a transparency revolution in every corner of the world.”

      As the OGP host the UK government hopes to advance measurable progress in at least five key policy areas:
      Open Data: Radically opening up government data for greater accountability, public service improvement and economic growth
      Government Integrity: fighting corruption and strengthening democracy through transparent government
      Fiscal Transparency: helping citizens to follow the money
      Empowering Citizens: transforming the relationship between citizens and governments
      Natural Resource Transparency: ensuring natural resources and extractive revenues are used for public benefit.

      Sounds important and worthwhile. But will we be there?

      It's not sounding promising despite the fact then Attorney General Dreyfus announced in May this year Australia's intention to join. The opposition was silent at the time. I wrote to Senator Brandis, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull in the pre-election period asking about the Coalition's position but received no reply.

      The government has said nothing on home soil since the election. But a statement issued in Washington by the White House on 23 September on behalf of Australia and 20 odd other governments includes a committment to strengthen support for bodies such as the OGP that encourage participation by civil society in initiatives to improve democratic practices.

      Over a week ago I phoned the Media unit at the Attorney General's Department asking whether the government would be represented in London. When no-one rang back as promised, I rang again. This time I was asked to email my request and did so on 17 October: Following up a telephone request yesterday as have not received a response: Will the Australian Government be represented at the OGP Summit meetings in London 31 October-1 November? If so by whom? If not is the Government still committed to joining the OGP as announced by the Attorney General in May this year, and as reflected in the statement of support issued on its behalf by the White House on 23 September? Thanks.Peter Timmins Open and Shut

      No reply. I emailed again- to no avail.

      On the non-government side, as a result of generous assistance from the OGP Support Unit Dr Matthew Landauer, co-founder of the Open Australia Foundation will attend, along with the other co-founder Katherine Szuminska. There may be others.

      Some of us taking a close interest in the issue will be meeting with Dr Landauer tomorrow in Sydney.

      As to whether anyone will be sitting in the big chair marked 'Australia' no-one is saying.
      Update- late word, yes we'll be there.

      Treasury leads on 2013 Blue book transparency-backwards

      In contrast to 2010, when it led by providing partial but significant disclosure of the brief provided to the returning Treasurer and was followed in due course by most other departments, this time Treasury leads in the opposite direction, refusing access in response to a freedom of information application to the incoming minister brief prepared for Treasurer Joe Hockey. And to the Red book prepared for a returning Labor government, although let's leave that to one side for the purpose of this post.

      The decision to refuse access to the entire brief is passing strange given Treasury released in response to FOI applications substantial parts of the same document prepared for a Coalition victory which didn't happen in 2010; audacious in it's reasoning, using but going further than the comments made on the issue by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan in the recent Crowe v Treasury decision; and disappointing in effect as others are sure to follow. 

      Sean Parnell in The Weekend Australian reported the Attorney General's Department had rejected an application for the AG's brief as well. 

      With the current delay in the OAIC meaning any review decision could be 12 months down the track, Treasury has provided a template for others wrestling with the issue. And bought months of secrecy regardless of the eventual outcome, although public statements and selective leaks from on high that suit the department, the Treasurer or the government can be expected

      The decision sounds a louder alarm about government transparency generally, already ringing because of other developments and the fact that neither the Prime Minister nor any ministers including Senator Brandis who has responsibility have said anything in the lead up to the election or since to reassure that the future involves more not less.