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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Foreign Minister supports OGP membership, process to get a move on

Foreign Minister Senator Carr in principle supports Australia joining the Open Government Partnership. Contrary to what the Attorney General's Department said a few days previously there is an interdepartmental committee of officials working on this with, ahem, AG's in the chair. And Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Peter Varghese says DFAT will be taking to the committee's next meeting a view that the process be concluded as soon as possible because "we should have an open and fast government initiative and not just an open government initiative."

Amen to that.

These snippets drawn from answers to questions when Senator Faulkner raised the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Carr and departmental officials during DFAT estimates hearings last week, the senator having shone some light on the process earlier in sessions with AG's and PM&C.

It also emerged that not only does the government have an unanswered August 2011 letter from Hillary Clinton inviting us to join, but another dated 16 January 2013 from the United Kingdom's Minister for the Cabinet Office. And the communique issued after the recent Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting in Perth on 18 January includes this reference: 'Australia values the leadership shown by the United Kingdom and others in the establishment of the Open Government Partnership, which Australia is currently considering joining'. (I missed that one.)

The Interdepartmental Committee met most recently in January.

Richard Rowe, First Assistant Secretary, International Organisations and Legal Division, and Senior Legal Adviser tried bravely to explain the process was taking time "because this is a relatively new initiative." More likely it slipped between stools for ages, then minister Brendan O'Connor killed it for some unknown reason prior to President Obama's visit in November 2011, and the OGP cause lacked a forceful champion to keep things going when the Attorney General twigged in May last year, nine months after the matter was officially raised with us by the US Government. 

As to why DFAT recently couldn't find anything relevant to consideration of the arguments for and against Australia joining, in response to my FOI application, just another mystery of (FOI) life, I suppose.

I'm looking forward to an OGP announcement soon-and some big thinking about how the government might proceed in partnership with civil society and what a national action plan might encompass.

Hansard extracts below for those interested in the detail.

 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Senator FAULKNER: I wanted to ask some questions, having been referred to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in other estimates committees including by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General's Department, in relation to Australia joining the Open Government Partnership. Could I begin by asking the minister or officials to confirm that the Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton, wrote to Australia in August 2011 inviting our country to join the Open Government Partnership?
Senator Bob Carr: I support in principle Australia joining the Open Government Partnership. It is under active consideration by the government. The Attorney-General's Department is coordinating this process. I might ask Richard Rowe to provide further information.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you, Minister, and perhaps Mr Rowe could begin by just confirming the communication that Australia received from the US Secretary of State in August 2011.
Mr R Rowe : Yes, there have been communications that have been sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs in relation to the Open Government Partnership and, as the minister has just said, Australia takes, in principle, a very positive, supportive approach to this initiative. We have, at officials level, been participating in the interdepartmental committee which has been led by the Attorney-General's Department, which has been considering how to develop a coordinated, whole-of-government approach. As you may be aware, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has now put forward a proposal about how Australia's membership of and contribution to the Open Government Partnership might be pursued. That has just recently been circulated. We are going to consider that in the IDC. The point that I would like to emphasise, though, is that we have certainly been very actively involved in the working group in support of the initiative.
Senator FAULKNER: Well, that is helpful and I appreciate that information, but what I was actually asking was: can you confirm that the United States Secretary of State wrote, in August 2011, inviting Australia to join the Open Government Partnership? I do appreciate that background but my first question was: could you just confirm that for me please?
Mr R Rowe : I can confirm that I am aware that such a letter was sent by the Secretary of State, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that; thank you. In the information that you provided then you used not 'that communication' but the plural 'communications'. Have there been other communications from Secretary Clinton, and if so, when?
Mr Rowe : I am not aware of any other communication by the former US Secretary of State. There has been another communication, though, to the minister very recently—last month—from the United Kingdom's Minister for the Cabinet Office.
Senator FAULKNER: What was the date of that minister's communication?
Mr Rowe : 16 January 2013.
Senator FAULKNER: I am going to ask you, Minister, if you can facilitate the tabling of the Secretary of State's letter of August 2011, and I am going to ask you if you could also now facilitate the tabling of the UK minister's letter. I will come back to that. But perhaps before we do that, Mr Rowe, are you able to inform the committee what the substance of the UK minister's letter was? Was that also a letter encouraging Australia to get involved?
Mr Rowe : Yes, it was. And, of course, there was a very positive reference, I would point out, in the AUKMIN communiqué to 'Australia values the leadership shown by the United Kingdom and others in the establishment of the Open Government Partnership, which Australia is currently considering joining'.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, that is true, and I was going to get that. It is positive, and I appreciate that, and I am positive that the government is positive. But I am not positive about how long it is taking for us to get our act together on this issue. The Secretary of State wrote in August 2011. Has that letter been responded to and, if so, when and by whom?
Mr Rowe : No, Senator, that letter has not been responded to.
Senator FAULKNER: That is still in the in-tray, is it?
Mr Rowe : That is, but can I explain why?
Mr Rowe : It is because this is a relatively new initiative. It is a whole-of-government initiative. DFAT is not the lead coordinator on this. There is a process that has been launched by another agency, which we have been party to, and we have been actively involved. So the reply has been held pending the identification of a coordinated, whole-of-government response.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, but while Australia has been doing all that terribly valuable work, how many other nations of the world have signed up?
Mr Rowe : At the moment, 34 countries have joined the initiative, and 21 have indicated their intention to join.
Senator FAULKNER: I do not think those figures are up-to-date, and I would commend you to the evidence given in the Attorney-General's Department on this issue. So there has been no response to the US Secretary of State's letter of August 2011, and I assume the UK minister's letter is still in the in-tray too, as it was only received on 16 January this year. It has not been responded to, but you made the point about what occurred at AUKMIN, and I appreciate that. That is the only response at this stage, is it?
Mr Rowe : The letters have not been responded to for the reasons that I have said: that we have been waiting to develop a whole-of-government position so that we are in a position to, you might say, prepare a draft reply for the minister's consideration to formally respond to those letters. We have not been in that position up until recently because of the interdepartmental process.
Senator FAULKNER: Could the two letters from the Secretary of State and the UK minister be tabled and provided?
Senator Bob Carr: Indeed, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. Thank you very much for that. That will be helpful. Would we have to do that this afternoon?
Senator Bob Carr: Yes, in a New York minute.
Senator FAULKNER: Good. Would you like to define your understanding of a New York minute?
Senator Bob Carr: I think, through the force of telepathic power, the letters are winging their way to towards this building now, even as I complete the sentence. In fact I can confirm that they have just arrived.
Senator FAULKNER: You said, Mr Rowe, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is serving on an IDC. What sort of level of representation does your department have on the IDC?
Mr Rowe : The IDC has met several times. The representation has been, my understanding is, at director level in the department. I personally have not attended. I would have to seek further information on the level of representation both by our department and by other departments.
Senator FAULKNER: You could take that on notice. You said the IDC met several times. Is the Attorney-General's Department the lead agency? Is that your understanding?
Mr Rowe : That is correct. They chair the IDC.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you have available to you, and I appreciate you may not, a record of the meetings of the IDC?
Mr Rowe : No I do not.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you have a record of the dates, times, places and attendance?
Mr Rowe : No I do not. I would have to get that information. I can inform you that to my knowledge the IDC met most recently in January. That was the most recent meeting.
Senator FAULKNER: If you could take that on notice, I would appreciate it. That would be helpful to understand. I heard the minister's positive statement, which I very much appreciate. I know that other ministers in the government have expressed similar positive sentiments to Australia joining the OGP. Do you think there would be any resource implications for DFAT if were to do so? I do not know if that is best directed to you, Mr Rowe?
Mr Rowe : As you are very familiar with the mandate and scope of the proposed partnership, we in DFAT, I would suggest, have a contribution that we can make but, given the breadth of scope and the focus of the partnership, it would not be the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that would have the capacity to carry the coordination and involvement in a whole-of-government sense in the partnership. That is why there has been consideration in the IDC to the possible lead role that the Information Commissioner's office might play. I am sure you are aware of the response that the Information Commissioner has made in relation to that aspect in the letter that he has sent to agencies. I understand it has been referred to in estimates hearings this week.
Senator FAULKNER: The tabled letter from Secretary of State Clinton is certainly not an original letter, is it? Is there any reason?
Mr Rowe : It is not the original, no.
Senator FAULKNER: Why is that?
Mr Rowe : This is the copy I have. I do not have the original with me.
Senator FAULKNER: No, but someone has gone to the trouble of providing the letter, which is very much appreciated. I certainly appreciate it. The one from the UK Cabinet Office is a photocopy of an original. The copy of the Secretary of State's letter is just retyped. You can assure me that the substance is the same, can you? I just wondered why it would be retyped when someone has gone to the trouble, which I really appreciate, of preparing to have the letters tabled, or at least having them available for tabling if a senator asked. I am just interested. I am not suggesting there is a conspiracy. I do not believe there is but I just wonder why anyone would do that.
Mr Rowe : Let me assure you, senator, that there is no conspiracy.
Senator FAULKNER: I knew that.
Mr Rowe : This is the form of the letter which I have with me. It is the only version I have seen. If you wish, we can check to see if there is some other version but, subject to double checking that, if there is another version I have no doubt that the text is entirely consistent.
Senator FAULKNER: Well, there is no way in the world that the Secretary of State has sent a letter not on letterhead, not signed and appears to have been retyped. I think it is unlikely that that is the letter Secretary Clinton sent. However, if the content is the same that is fine.
Mr Rowe : It depends on how the letter was transmitted. I would have to check but it may have been transmitted electronically in which case it was like this and therefore did not have the seal of the Secretary of State, for example, or an original signature.
Senator FAULKNER: It would be doubtful if it was like that, but anyway. Of course, it may have been transmitted electronically, as you say. After all, the letter has asked Australia to be part of the launch of the OGP on 20 September 2011. Minister, would you agree that it is a long time between drinks?
Senator Bob Carr: It seems a long time.
Senator FAULKNER: It does. Is someone able to say—I do not like asking questions that might be considered hypothetical or predictive in nature—whether we have a target date to conclude the internal processes of government and signing up, given the positive statement of Minister Carr, which I very much appreciate. I know other ministers in correspondence have shared these same positive sentiments. What are we planning for?
Mr Rowe : If I can comment as an official of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we are ready to proceed as expeditiously as possible on this matter.
Senator FAULKNER: But you might have been ready to proceed expeditiously since, for all I know, 2011 because nothing has happened since then. It might have been many things; expeditious it has not been.
Mr Rowe : Can I just recall that there is an interagency process which we are not leading which brings all the relevant agencies together. In terms of you might say bringing this to the pointy end of actually proceeding, I think it must be through that process, and as I understand it the chair of that process will be taking it forward.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. I have learned more about the interagency process from you that I heard from the lead agency, so I appreciate that. You appear to know more about what is happening with the IDC than the Department of the Attorney-General. I appreciate the information you have provided and that is why I have asked you to take this information on notice and I am not going to place a question on notice at this stage to the Attorney-General's Department. They do not appear to be the answer these sorts of questions. I wonder if you are able to assist us in terms of when Australia, given the clear intention that has been indicated, including today, by Minister Carr of support for the initiative and the intention to join the initiative, on whether there is any firm plan about timing. You may not be able to help me. I know you are not the lead agency; there is no need to qualify that again. I have got that on board and I understand it and accept it. Nevertheless, I assume that when an answer goes to the Secretary of State it will probably go from Senator Carr, won't it?
Mr Rowe : That is correct. I would suggest that the next steps would be for recommendations to be put forward in a formal sense to the government. That would seem to me to be the next step in the process.
Mr Varghese : May I suggest that at the next meeting of this committee we reiterate the need to conclude the process as soon as possible, because clearly it has taken a long time and perhaps we should have an open and fast government initiative and not just an open government initiative.
Senator FAULKNER: Perhaps not fast but perhaps quicker than we have managed to date. After all, the then Attorney-General, Ms Roxon, indicated in a letter that has been made public under FOI processes, a letter to Professor McMillan, the Australian Information Commissioner, that she had written to the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy proposing that Australia join the OGP on 27 June last year. So you could confirm, Mr Rowe, that the Attorney-General did write sometime before 27 June 2012 proposing that course of action.
Mr Rowe : Correct.
Senator FAULKNER: Okay. Thank you for the information you have provided. Thank you, Minister, for indicating your support for the proposal and thank you, Secretary, for indicating to the committee your view that it would be possible to move that something slightly faster than a snail's pace on this issue. I appreciate that.
CHAIR: Is it the wish of the committee that the document that has been circulated be part of the proceedings? There being no objection, it is so ordered


  1. It demonstrates how open government leadership within the current government has been eroded and the speed of Australia's bureaucracy compared to the 58 countries that are members of the OGP.

    What would be interesting at this stage would be the comments of opposition spokespeople on whether they support open government and membership of this initiative moving forward.

  2. Craig,
    Thanks.The Opposition hasn't said much (anything?) on topic, but needs to come or be nrought to the party. As does civil society when government-this or the next- reaches out. We live in hope..

  3. Anonymous11:08 am

    Why are they wasting time retyping letters from Ms Clinton? Has the photocopier budget fallen through the floor as well?

  4. Anon,
    With Senator Faulkner on the job, you can rest easy.