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Friday, September 04, 2015

Australia head down and close lipped when it comes to the Open Government Partnership

The Abbott government continues to confuse some and dismay others following years of dithering about whether it wants to be part of the international movement committed to reform efforts designed to make government more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.

Nothing to show for years of 'considering'
Four years after Australia was invited to join the Open Government Partnership, 28 months after a previous government lodged notice of intention to join, and two years since coming to office the Abbott government has not responded publicly to queries from the OGP and prefers to say nothing in response to requests for clarification of where things stand. 

For example these unanswered questions sent to the office of Minister for Finance Cormann twice in the last 10 days
Has the government responded to the OGP Support Unit following reports of concern reflected in the minutes of the July meeting of the Steering Committee over Australia’s lack of action as a member?
What are the government's intentions regarding the request to “recommit' to the OGP  by the deadline imposed by the Steering Committee, the October Global Summit meeting in Mexico?
If the intention is to proceed with OGP membership, what steps are envisaged for public consultation on a national action plan?
No answer from the Minister's office either to a question about whether the government will be represented at the OGP Asia Pacific Regional Meeting to be held 7–8 September 2015 at Asian Development Bank headquarters in Manila.

 However the organisers are more forthcoming telling me Daniel Featherston Economic Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Manila is down to attend.
(I suppose that's something and indicates we are not out of it entirely but it conveys the message our interest is near bare minimum.Then again they could have sent the third secretary!)

Unfortunately it is part of a pattern -  Australia is yet to be represented by a minister at any OGP meeting. Prime Minister Abbott didn't take up the invitation from  President Yudyohono to attend the OGP regional meeting in Bali in May 2014, sending an official from Finance Canberra, nor attend President Obama's OGP gathering in New York in Leaders Week at the United Nations this time last year.

While Australia on the sidelines maintains an aloof position on the OGP and its goals, others note that the Asia Pacific region is under represented with regional initiative left to Indonesia, recently re-elected to the Steering Committee, Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines, supported by the Asian Development Bank and other donors.

Silence since February
The last time anything was said publicly about Australia's OGP intentions was February 2015 when the Minister for Finance told Senate Estimates the issue of Australian membership was still under consideration and the government was 'positively inclined' to join.

Has the PM yet seen a draft?
We know thanks to documents released under Freedom of Information that in August 2014 Prime Minister Abbott wrote to the Minister for Finance instructing that no announcement of Australia's position on membership of the OGP should be made "until a draft national action plan is submitted for my consideration.The action plan must give effect to practical measures that align with the Government's overall policy objectives in this area and that take into account the work of the (Redacted: s 34(3) Cabinet) and the timeframes for Government decisions on that work." Finance told the Minister work was coming along and should be in hand by the end of 2014. We don't know what happened since.

OGP in the dark  
In November 2014 the OGP Support Unit, taking the May 2013 notice of intention at face value, wrote to the Department of Finance pointing out Australia had acted contrary to the OGP process in failing to meet deadlines for lodgement of a national action plan. There is nothing publicly available to indicate they received a reply.

Or that they have heard back from Australia after they upped the ante more recently following the OGP Steering Committee discussion about government intentions at the July 2015 meeting:
The case of Australia was highlighted as particularly concerning, and the Steering Committee agreed on next steps and a deadline for Australia to recommit to OGP by the time of the Global Summit (October 2015).
The company Australia keeps?
So with a deadline in October and no doubt lots of questions for Mr Featherston in Manila next week will Australia recommit to "the international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens" shared by 65 others?

Or join Russia as the only country to sign on to these objectives then think better of it by withdrawing?

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