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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Estimates might shine the torchlight on disinterest in Open Government Partnership.

Senate Estimates next week will see plenty of probing on a whole range of issues in the transparency and accountability space. One that deserves a run despite the surfeit of competition for precious time is the continuing uncertainty over our intentions regarding the Open Government Partnership.

The OGP is an international initiative by governments, civil society and the private sector to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. It should be right up the alley of any genuine democracy and those that have that aspiration. 

The Abbott government is fence sitting on whether it will proceed with the membership application foreshadowed by the Gillard government in May 2013. "Matter under consideration" has been repeated ad nauseum in the eight months since the election, but the foot dragging didn't start then.

I guess its long past  the point that any individual or agency can be held responsible for this start/stop/start/meander process.

But the timeline below of close to three years (and counting) of shuffling or standing on the spot shows what can happen when an issue lacks ministerial ownership or interest (this goes all the way back to Kevin Rudd and continues over the years to other Labor ministers and now to Attorney General Brandis and Finance Minister Cormann) leaving the public servants without direction to dabble with it from time to time.


The timeline includes brief commentary along the way. Would love to see the insider's version. Maybe in 28 years. Any senators doing the probing might find this useful.

Of course disinterest in the OGP is just one aspect of the bigger picture of declining interest in open transparent and accountable government. Estimates will have plenty of burrows that need the torchlight including the decision to abolish the OAIC.

August 2011: US Secretary of State Clinton letter to Foreign Minister Rudd inviting Australia to join. No reply.

September 2011: Launch of OGP during Leaders Week at UN General Assembly in NY by President Obama and President of Brazil on behalf of eight founding members. This post at the time queried why Australia wasn't there with bells on

November 2011: Briefing note to Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information (those were the days!!) Brendan O'Connor prior to Obama visit to Canberra recommends Australia join. Rejected. No reasons noted.

May 2012: In response to a departmental briefing AG Roxon tells AG's "let's join." Inter agency consultations. Documents released by OAIC in February 2013 show exchanges between OAIC and AG's on who should manage the issue. Officials see membership as no big deal suggesting the National Action Plan might mainly involve repackaging some Gov 2.0 initiatives.


November 2012: My FOI to DFAT seeking latest summary of the pros and cons of joining. DFAT takes 10 weeks to respond providing one sentence from a document already in the public domain but apparently no list of pros and cons has been prepared ever.

December 2012: Senator John Faulkner speech on Integrity in Government urges government to join.

January 2013: Letter from UK Minister for Cabinet Office Maude inviting Australia to join.
January 2013:  Communique Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting in Perth: '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'.

February 2013:Senator Faulkner questions DFAT in Estimates. Foreign Minister Carr agrees in principle we should join. Secretary Varghese says will take the matter to a meeting of officials pressing for a decision.

May 2013: Attorney General Dreyfus announces Australia's intention to join. Expected to complete requirements by March 2014 in time for meetings scheduled for Bali.

May 2013: After some uncertainty, and as a result of questions by Senator Faulkner of PM&C at Estimates, AG's announced as responsible agency.

July 2013: Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan spells out international and domestic considerations that support our membership.

Pre-election 2013: No reference to OGP in Coalition statements or policy documents.

September 2013: NZ announce intention to join ( after meeting between PM Key and PM Cameron)

September 2013: Statement issued by White House on behalf of more than 20 countries including Australia, strongly supportive of participatory democracy and the OGP. No statement of this kind issued in Australia.

(Story does the rounds that Dreyfus proposed to PM prior to election the transfer of responsibility to Finance but paper work wasn't completed, and that AGD raised same issue after the election. The Australian contact listed on the OGP website is Pia Waugh of Finance. Nothing said publicly.)

October 2013: Last minute announcement Australia to be represented at London OGP Conference by John Sheridan of Finance and Treasury Counsellor in London.


February 2014 Estimates: Brandis responds to Senator Rhiannon: draft national action plan "in development"; three inter agency meetings have been held -17 July 2013, 29 October 2013, and 5 November 2013. No mention that responsibility transferred to Finance if that is the case.

March 2014: My FOI to AG's for copyy  of the record of each meeting. Finance says it has no copies of two of these meetings, but transfers part of the request to Finance which holds the record of the 29 October meeting and releases it. AG's releases the record of the July 2013 meeting. Neither department apparently holds a copy of the November meeting record.

March 2014: My letter to Attorney General Brandis suggesting his department is pretty off handed dealing with the records concerning a matter that other governments seem to regard as important and urging an announcement and consultation on a plan.No reply. Letter to Foreign Minister Bishop urging her to attend Bali meeting. Acknowledgement recieved: OGP "under consideration."

May 2014:Prime Minister invited to Bali regional OGP meeting. Someone puts it around that SBY is offering an olive branch. We were left with egg, rather than the branch as it turns out the PM says he can't go. Australia represented by John Sheridan. Two CSO reps go under their own steam. Nothing in public statements about the OGP and our intentions.

Sources say formal transfer of responsibility to Finance completed in recent weeks but nothing said publicly.

OGP now has 64 members or intending members. France the latest is yet to be added to the list here

Ireland announced its intention to join at same time as Australia and has now completed requirements including national consultation on an action plan, and this month hosted a European Regional OGP conference. New Zealand announced its intention to join four months after us, and intends to complete the process by July 2014. A NZ Minister attended the Bali meetings.

I described our position recently as Classic Folly in the Barbara Tuchman sense. May we come to our senses soon. 

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