Australia’s failure to join the Open Government Partnership, (OGP) since it was first invited in 2011 is becoming an embarrassment. The OGP currently has 66 participating countries. The OGP has now set a deadline for Australia to join of 27th October – a deadline with which we show no signs of compliance.

Accountability Round Table has written to Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, who is Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Minister for the Arts, Minister for Communications and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government. We draw attention to the ramifications of a failure to act on joining OGP. Read on, below.


 

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

PO Box 6100
Senate
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Minister,

I write as Chair of the Accountability Round Table, whose objectives are to promote integrity in public life, including transparency in government, as outlined in our website. I enclose for your convenience an extract from the Home Page of our website, which includes a list of our directors.

The particular issue I want to raise with you is the Australian Government’s application for membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform to assist people and their governments to make their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Since then, the OGP has grown from 8 countries to 66 participating countries. They include the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada, Indonesia and New Zealand. In the vast majority of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement open government reforms. So far, only one applicant has withdrawn – Russia.

Australia is listed as a participant on the OGP website. We were invited to join by the United Kingdom and the United States, the first invitation being in 2011. We did not apply to join until May 2013. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is an enthusiastic supporter of the OGP, as indicated in his speech on the matter. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was also a strong supporter, and held an OGP Conference in Bali in May 2014, hosted by President SBY personally. We urged high level participation by Australia at the time, but this did not happen. It was astonishing to us, given the importance of our relationship with Indonesia, that we showed so little interest.

We note from the Administrative Arrangements Order released by the new government, that carriage of this issue has been transferred from the Department of Finance to the Prime Minister’s Department, so we presume this now comes under your responsibilities as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Digital Economy. This is a most welcome development.

On 24 April 2014 I wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Abbott with Mr. Roger Giles AO QC, Chair of Transparency International regarding the government’s intentions with the OGP. Mr. Abbott replied on 17 June 2014 advising us that the government was “looking carefully at the commitments that are required to join this international organisation and at the benefits that joining might bring to Australia”. We were informed that he had asked the Minister for Finance, Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, to lead the government’s consideration of this matter.

On 11 July 2014 one of our Executive Members, the Hon Jim Carlton AO, wrote a personal letter to Senator Cormann, with whom he was well acquainted, asking him, despite his other heavy responsibilities, to take a personal interest in the matter.   The Minister assigned a member of his staff to handle the matter.

Mr. Carlton maintained contact with the staff member, who was very helpful, but the impression was gained that there was little enthusiasm for the proposal at higher levels. Our concerns were heightened following an appearance by the Minister and the Department Secretary, Ms Jane Halton at Senate Estimates on 20 November 2014.  It became clear that while work had been proceeding at departmental level in producing a draft National Action Plan as required by the OGP, and this had been proceeding for some time, no action had been taken to involve the community. As part of the “preparation” for membership, Ms Halton was to consult all possible stakeholders within the government as to how they might be affected by the move. It was clear that the proposal was getting nowhere. Hardly any department welcomes greater transparency. Without leadership from the top such proposals do not succeed.

Embarrassingly, Australia has been under pressure for a considerable time to declare its hand with the OGP.   The OGP Steering Committee decided in July 2015 to set a deadline for Australia to recommit to its application by the time of the October Global Summit (See also Freedominfo. org). The Steering Committee Minutes state

“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.”

We are now greatly encouraged, however, by the recent remarks made by our new Prime Minister about the importance of open government and his earlier statements as Communications Minister about the Government’s intention, through the DTO  to work with the D5 countries of South Korea, Estonia, New Zealand, Israel and the UK, the advanced digital economies, in accordance with the D5 Charter. Each of the five countries is a member of the OGP and Article 3.5 of the D5 Charter requires members to become members of the OGP.

The Global Summit of the OGP in Mexico is imminent. It is scheduled to run from 27 to 29 October. The opportunity is presented for the Government to indicate a change of heart by making a serious commitment to join the OGP, thereby also making a genuine commitment to open government, in accord with its election commitment, and enabling it to seek membership of the D5 for Australia.

Much is at stake. We urge the government to do so. We stand ready to assist.

Yours sincerely

 

Hon. Tim Smith QC

Chair, Accountability Round Table