news The Coalition Federal Government has reportedly signalled it is reconsidering the previous Labor administration’s commitment to join the multilateral Open Government Partnership aimed at increasing citizen engagement and government transparency, in a move which would place Australia alongside just one other nation to withdraw: Russia.
According to its website, OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Since then, OGP has grown from 8 countries to the 63 participating countries indicated on the map below. In all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms.
The multilateral initiative aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a Steering Committee including representatives of governments and civil society organizations. To become a member of OGP, participating countries must endorse a high-level Open Government Declaration, deliver a country action plan developed with public consultation, and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.
Australia’s commitment to the OGP goes back almost four years. In July 2010, then-Finance and Deregulation Minister Lindsay Tanner, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, published a Declaration of Open Government.
“The Australian government now declares that, in order to promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology,” Tanner wrote at the time.
“Citizen collaboration in policy and service delivery design will enhance the processes of government and improve the outcomes sought. Collaboration with citizens is to be enabled and encouraged. Agencies are to reduce barriers to online engagement, undertake social networking, crowd sourcing and online collaboration projects and support online engagement by employees, in accordance with the Australian Public Service Commission Guidelines.”
“The possibilities for open government depend on the innovative use of new internet-based technologies. Agencies are to develop policies that support employee-initiated, innovative Government 2.0-based proposals.”
The commitment to the OGP was formalised in 2013, with work beginning on an independent action plan to take the country forward in this area.
However, The Australian reported last week (we recommend you click here for the full article) that the new Coalition administration was reconsidering the commitment. “The Abbott government is reconsidering Labor’s pledge to sign Australia up for a major international transparency and citizen engagement initiative,” the newspaper reported.
The move was immediately and heavily criticised by Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. “The Abbott Government has broken another promise by reconsidering Australia’s membership of the Open Government Partnership,” Dreyfus said in a statement. “Before the election, the Liberal Party document Real Solutions for All Australians promised: ‘We will restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you.'”
“Now Australia will join Russia as the only countries who have agreed to join the Open Government Partnership only to withdraw.”
“The Open Government Partnership is a multilateral organisation that promotes transparency in government and tackles corruption. More than 60 nations have joined since its creation in 2011, including the United Kingdom and the United States as founding countries. The Labor Government announced that Australia would join the Open Government Partnership almost a year ago and work began on the National Action Plan.”
“Joining the Open Government Partnership is part of Labor’s commitment to greater openness and accountability in government processes. In contrast the Abbott Government has shown itself to be most secretive in Australia’s history. Withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership is one more example of this Government saying one thing to get elected and then doing the complete opposite.”
Despite Dreyfus’s statement, both Labor and the Coalition have recently enacted and supported measures such as data retention, Internet filtering and censorship and electronic surveillance which aimed to increased government control and surveillance of the information which Australians are able to access and communicate about. The two parties have also repeatedly teamed up in the Senate to block the release of information about such initiatives. Neither party has focused substantially on enacting transparency reforms, especially around Freedom of Information laws, or enabling the substantive release of government information, apart from at a cursory level.
In addition, both sides of politics have over the past several years attempted to block the release of important reports or information . For example, under Labor in late 2011, the Federal Government explicitly denied requests by consumer organisations to attend secret meetings held between the content and telecommunications industries to address the issue of illegal file sharing through avenues such as BitTorrent, and blocked access to any information about the content of the discussions. The Coalition is currently seeking to reboot the talks.
In February this year, as one of many examples of government censorship of major reports, the Department of Health rejected a Freedom of Information request for a report reviewing the Federal Government’s troubled Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records project, claiming that it does not have a copy of the document, despite the fact that Health Minister Peter Dutton announced in December that he had received it. The department has since confirmed it has a copy of the report, but has again refused to release it, despite the high amount of public interest in the document.
In another example in February, an attempt by Delimiter to retrieve the ‘Blue Book’ incoming ministerial briefing of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull under Freedom of Information laws failed, with the Federal Government as a whole appearing to standardise around interpreting its rights as blocking such documents wholesale, despite having released such documents in the past.
Tanner’s declaration of Open Government in 2010 was itself panned by some critics because it came at a time when the Federal Government was supporting its controversial mandatory Internet filtering policy. “Not that there was something wrong with the declaration itself, but that it meant nothing as long as mandatory internet filtering remained government policy,” wrote commentator Stilgherrian at the time.
I’m not surprised that the new Coalition Government is re-examining its commitment to the Open Government Partnership. Such arrangements are inimical to the kind of political culture which is rapidly becoming the norm in Australia; of course they would be case aside as an inconvenience. The more disturbing aspect to this, of course, is that the Opposition itself has a similarly appalling record on Government transparency as the current Government does.
Yes, it was Labor that initially signalled plans to adopt the Open Government Partnership; but it took its sweet time getting to that point, and even Tanner’s earlier declaration meant little, coming as it did at a time when the Government appeared determine to heavily censor Australian Internet access. Labor had several years to get involved in the Open Government Partnership from 2011. Why was Australia not a founding partner of the initiative?
It’s nice of Dreyfus to raise a fuss about this issue. But when the Shadow Attorney-General has so many issues of his own to deal with in terms of Labor policy in this area, one can’t help but see this whole discussion between the two supposedly separate sides of politics as really just the left hand shaking the right.