Australia expands Open Government plan, readies for international scrutiny

By Stephen Easton

Thursday December 8, 2016

The Australian government officially endorsed 15 formal commitments to the cause of the international Open Government Partnership yesterday, with only a few weeks to spare.

Compared to a draft that emerged in late October, there is only one mild surprise in Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan, which is the key requirement for active membership of the group.

Member states are expected to set “concrete commitments … that are ambitious and go beyond a country’s current practice” and pursue them over a two-year period.

The only element of the plan not seen in the draft is a pledge to “combating corporate crime” in the first section on “transparency and accountability in business” — which also includes a promise to create a register that “shows who ultimately owns and benefits from the activities of companies” in Australia. The new commitment is described thus:

“Australia will strengthen its ability to prevent, detect and respond to corporate crime, particularly bribery of foreign public officials, money laundering, and terrorism financing.

“We will do this by pursuing reforms to relevant legislative frameworks, which will involve a process of public consultation.”

Also in the first section is a commitment to “improve whistleblower protections in the tax and corporate sectors” by the end of 2017 — which has been given a shove by independent senators Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch — and a promise to “enhance disclosure of company payments and government revenues from oil, gas and mining” — which the Australian National Audit Office also thinks would be a good idea.

Each of the 15 commitments starts with a summary of the “status quo” in the particular policy field and the government’s ambition to improve it, linked to OGP “grand challenges” like improving public services and integrity of public institutions.

A lead agency is named — the Attorney-General’s Department in the case of white-collar criminals — and any other sectors, organisations or actors that are expected to be involved with the particular goal, from the public sector and otherwise, are listed.

Next are the step-by-step actions. For combating corporate crime, AGD will run a typical review of relevant existing legislation and consult on possible reform options, which will include a deferred prosecution agreement scheme. There will be a public consultation on the recent statutory review of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006 which government is presently considering, and finally, a review of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission enforcement regime.

Other commitments focus on: open data and digital transformation; access to government information; integrity in the public sector; and public participation and engagement.

The public sector integrity section includes a commitment to a stronger national integrity framework, which will be partly informed by the first “Government Business Roundtable on Anti-Corruption” some time in 2017.

Beset by interruptions, Australia got there in the end

Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, who reportedly took over leadership of Australia’s bid for OGP membership in November, announced the plan yesterday and thanked the diverse working group who hammered it out from a year-long public consultation process that suffered some delays.

Government officials are launching the plan at the fourth annual OGP Global Summit in Paris this week.

Australia almost missed out on active membership of the OGP until its next two-year cycle, after missing the original June 30 submission deadline by more than four months — the process was interrupted by the double dissolution election — but was given an extension to the end of this year.

Last month, OGP chief executive Sanjay Pradhan wrote to Steven Kennedy, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s deputy secretary for Innovation and Transformation, pointing out the Australian government had “acted contrary to the OGP process for three consecutive action plan cycles (2014, 2015 and 2016)” and warning Australia would be declared “inactive” if the plan was not done before the new year.

However, the officials and their civil society stakeholders on the working group worked through a shortened schedule to reach the new deadline.

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