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Monday, April 19, 2021

Neither open nor ambitious when it comes to Australia's open government plans

Having spent time and energy, commencing in 2011when the initiative was first announced, in encouraging, advocating and participating in Australian involvement in the Open Government Partnership, my optimism and enthusiasm for the cause has taken a nose dive in recent times. 

I'm glad a small cohort of determined supporters of democratic principles hang in there.

But with no champions at the highest levels of a government that some suggest is allergic to transparency our commitments to reform have been mediocre in ambition, modest at best in terms of results, limited in reaching out to raise awareness and extend participation beyond usual suspects (no offence intended), and opaque when it comes to what is going on behind the scenes.

On the last mentioned:

The Open Government Forum "Australia's multi-stakeholder forum" comprised of members from government and civil society hasn't met for five, almost six months- since November.

The minutes of the last meeting on 27 November 2020 are yet to be published. 

(Update Sometime after I asked PMC about the minutes on 7 April they appeared in the meeting papers on the PMC website available here)

A document in published papers for that meeting refers to a planned Forum meeting on 18 February 2021 for 'Formal Close out of NAP 3 Development Process."The meeting wasn't held then, or since apparently. Presumably the Forum is yet to formally 'close out.'

The process to develop a third national action plan commenced in November 2019 with a requirement at that stage that the completed plan would be submitted to the OGP in August 2020. The Pandemic saw the due date extended to 28 February 2021. PMC tell me the plan is yet to be submitted because the government has not formally considered and endorsed it. (And of course the Forum hasn't closed out yet on what the government will later consider. The draft commitments as they stood in November-Item 5 in this list-bear little resemblance to what most commentators and experts regard as priorities in addressing the current retreat from accountability and transparency)

Then Minister Cormann was the 'co-ordinating minister' for Australia's OGP commitments and the development, adoption  and implementation commencing with the first national action plan in 2016-2018 but if he spoke publicly about the OGP during the ensuing five years apart from a short attendance at a meeting in Paris some years back, I must have missed it. He resigned from the ministry on 30 October 2020. You'll struggle to find any mention of who took his place but PMC advise its Assistant Minister Ben Morton- who hasn't spoken a word about it either that I can find. A speech to the Australian Public Service by the Assistant Minister in February 2021  includes a section headed "The Government's ambition Inspiring Australians to engage in democracy" but not a word about open government, the OGP, anything the government might claim as reforms past or planned.

In early 2019, then Civil Society Co-Chair of the Forum Fiona Mcleod SC (Chair of Accountability Roundtable) and a candidate in the Federal election held at that time stood down. While the position has been capably filled on an interim basis by Adjunct Professor Ken Coghill, no replacement for Ms McLeod has been announced for over two years. 

The OGP requires independent assessment of the design and implementation of the commitments adopted by OGP participating governments in their country action plans. Three reports have been published on Australian plans, way too late to have much impact. None give Australia much in the way of commendation, no commitments qualify as ambitious. None are published on the PMC website. The government is also required to publish a midterm and closing report on each plan.  The most recent self assessment (pdf) published on the PMC website is at mid term of the 2016-2018 plan.

Along this ten year journey I've often concluded that when it comes to high standards and practices regarding accountability, transparency and integrity, I live in hope but on form to date the Morrison government makes hope look futile.