The federal government has failed to submit a plan for greater accountability and transparency prepared by public servants and community members for an international body now warning Australia’s membership status could change.
Australia is among 78 countries in the Open Government Partnership, which the federal government joined in 2015, but has since submitted only two national action plans despite a third being due at the end of 2021.
The government has blamed the missed deadline on the pandemic, despite a forum tasked with developing the action plan approving it in November 2020.
The US-headquartered OGP aims to secure commitments from governments every two years to promote openness and transparency by working with civil society members on action plans that lead to reforms.
A forum made up of nine community members and nine public servants worked to prepare Australia’s 2021-23 action plan, which it delivered in 2020 to then-assistant minister to the prime minister and cabinet Ben Morton, but the OGP never received it.
OGP chief executive Sanjay Pradhan wrote in a letter to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet last week that Australia had “acted contrary to the OGP process” and warned two consecutive missed deadlines would change Australia’s membership status.
“Governments that act contrary to process for two consecutive cycles are placed under review by the OGP Steering Committee, which involves enhanced support to resolve the issues that led to being placed in that status,” Pradhan said.
The government’s draft action plan, seen by The Mandarin, makes several commitments including to form a consistent approach to the proactive release of information, promote good practice in government data sharing, and provide professional support for ministerial advisers.
It also commits to improving awareness in federal agencies of fraud risks during the government’s response to a crisis situation, and agrees to improve transparency and trust related to the use of emergency and crisis powers. The draft supports initiating a research project to compare Australia’s freedom of information management.
Ken Coghill, the panel’s co-chair for civilian members and a former Labor MP in the Victorian parliament from 1979 to 1996, said missing the deadline brought the government’s commitment to openness into question.
“The government is being anything but transparent about its plans,” Coghill, now a Swinburne University professor, said.
“The Australian public is missing the improved governance that is produced by Open Government.”
The OGP has told the government it now considers Australia to be in a new cycle of preparing a plan for the following two years, but Coghill wants Australia to submit its overdue 2021-23 action plan.
“It would be seen as a gesture of goodwill and commitment if they were to submit the current action plan,” he said.
“There is an enormous amount of work gone into this out of goodwill from the civilian society members of the forum and on the most part from the government members of the forum.”
Three of Australia’s previous commitments to the OGP from its 2018-20 plan are currently listed by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as “delayed”.
The commitments include improving public service practices using place-based approaches, enhancing the transparency of political donations, and funding and strengthening the national anti-corruption framework.
A Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet spokesperson said the government remained committed to the Open Government Partnership and delivering the action plans.
“Significant accomplishments have been made since Australia joined in 2015,” the spokesperson said. “However, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the government’s priority over the last two years.”