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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Australian fence sitting on the OGP: Classic folly

The Official Photo taken a few hours ago in Bali of President Yudhoyono with the OGP Steering Committee "and other dignitaries." For obvious reasons, no Australians are present.

Missing from media reports about the Prime Minister's decision not to go to meet Indonesian President Yudhoyono in an ante room while both are at the Open Government Partnership Asia Pacific Regional Conference is any reference to what the partnership is about and what Australia's foot dragging lack of enthusiasm for the initiative over the last 32 months says about the priority the government attaches to the cause of good government at home and abroad.

The commentators are right in pointing out that by spurning the invitation we are digging an even deeper foreign policy hole in one of our most important foreign relationships.This is a top order snub, having put it around that the invitation from the President was an olive branch extended as his time in office enters the twilight zone. 

Of course the Prime Minister may have said sorry, really busy but the potential for embarrassment over a boat issue at the same time as the vital photo op handshake won't have escaped the Indonesians as the more likely reason.

The Indonesians and others won't miss the point either that that every other potential senior Australian government representative, including ministers Bishop, Brandis and Cormann who were also specifically invited, were just as busy as the PM and couldn't be spared for a couple of days to fly the Australian flag at this regional initiative hosted by the Indonesian government. A public servant John Sheridan from Finance is there apparently, although I've seen no announcement.

What the commentators are missing is that the government's close to invisible presence in OGP forums highlights our lack of interest in exploring how we might advance open, transparent and accountable government in Australia.

The OGP kicked off in September 2011. Sixty four countries have joined or are in the process of doing so, France the latest this week. Australia under Labor said count us in- in May 2013.

Virtually nothing has happened since. Membership involves endorsing the Open Government Declaration, and in partnership with civil society developing a national action plan to address agreed priority shortcomings.

For a government that claims to uphold democratic ideals and keen to advance democracy more broadly in the region, sitting out the OGP is classic folly in Barbara Tuchman's terms: the pursuit of policy contrary to our self interest, against the backdrop of other rational and available alternatives.

Opportunity lost again this time in Bali. Gone are the days when we could claim some leadership credentials in this field.

But long overdue time for a positive statement from the top, and a meaningful dialogue with those outside government about how we can improve democratic governance here at home. There is no shortage of suggestions about where to start to make government more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.

New Zealand, represented by a minister in Bali has announced it will complete the required national consultation and submit a national action plan by July. 

Hope springs eternal - we might at least get started by then.

(I'm back in Australia, after six weeks away-hope the jet lag isn't showing.)

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