Malcolm Turnbull has promised to “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you”. That commitment had been breached by the government, in particular by its bill to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, a matter still unresolved, and its failure to advance Australia’s application to join the Open Government Partnership.
Tim Smith, David Harper and Stephen Charles are all former Victorian Supreme Court judges and are also members of ART
Time for Turnbull to step up on open government.
It seems that everyone is asking “How different is our federal government going to be under our new Prime Minister?”
On his first day of office, September 14, 2015, Malcolm Turnbull made this important, potentially redefining, statement: “We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield”.
His statement recommitted the government, to its original election promise to “restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you”. That commitment had been breached by the government, in particular by its bill to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, a matter still unresolved, and its failure to advance Australia’s application to join the Open Government Partnership.
Turnbull’s commitment to open government is not new. He has been strongly supportive of the proactive disclosure of government information. As communications minister, he established the Digital Transformation Office to work with the Digital 5 countries of South Korea, Estonia, New Zealand, Israel and Britain, countries with advanced digital economies.
Australia could not join the D5 then (and cannot now), because the D5 charter requires that applicants must commit to being a member of the OGP. Turnbull has the opportunity to change that but he will need to move quickly.
What is the OGP? It is an international body that provides a platform to assist people and their governments to make government more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. It has 65 participating nations. Its importance has grown significantly. Two of its strongest supporters have been British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barrack Obama.
We were invited to join the OGP in 2011 by the United States and Britain. Since then, our joining the OGP has been officially on the agenda for each of our Commonwealth governments. But there has been an embarrassing history of delay and hesitation by them.
First, it was not until 2013 that the then attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, wrote on behalf of the Australian government to the OGP accepting the invitation to join. Like all applicants, Australia’s next task was to prepare its direct action plan. We understand work began within the then ALP government before the 2013 election. Since then, under the Abbott government, progress has been very slow and there is yet to be the required consultation with the community. Responding to an inquiry made in late 2014 by the Accountability Round Table, prime minister Tony Abbott stated that “My government is continuing its consideration of progressing participation in the Open Government Partnership. I do not consider there is any need to rush that consideration. Australia has much to be proud of in its advancement of good governance and democracy”. We are yet to see a draft action plan.
The OGP has a steering committee. Among other things, it monitors the progress of applications. In July this year, it decided to act and called on Australia to recommit to its application to join that partnership. The steering committee’s minutes state that “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.”
The Global Summit opens on October 27. It is understandable that the steering committee is particularly concerned. Australia should be providing a positive example. It is well placed to do so. It will be recalled that it was Australia, led by the Fraser government, that in 1982 introduced a Commonwealth Freedom of Information system. Subsequently, in 2010, the then Labor government addressed flaws that had developed over the years in that system. A key best practice reform made then was the creation of the independent statutory body mentioned above, the OAIC.
Our governments’ lengthy delays since 2011 in advancing Australia’s OGP membership application have been profoundly embarrassing for Australia internationally. But that will be nothing compared to the embarrassment that will follow should Australia fail to demonstrate a genuine recommitment to the OGP before 27 October. No applicant has yet been rejected. Only one applicant has withdrawn – Russia. Australia’s international reputation is at stake.
The Turnbull government has the opportunity to honour its election commitment and the application Australia made in 2013 to join the OGP. The little time remaining means that we will not be able to directly meet the application requirements before October 27 – in particular, community consultation on the action plan. With the credibility Turnbull brings to this issue, the government should be able to demonstrate before the deadline, that it understands, and seeks for Australia and the world, the economic and good government benefits of open government and that every effort will be made to ensure that it, and the Australian people, will address the requirements for OGP membership as soon as possible.
Tim Smith, David Harper and Stephen Charles are former justices of the Supreme Court of Victoria.
This story was found at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/time-for-turnbull-to-step-up-on-open-government-20151016-gkb0uy.html