Senate Estimates-questions and some answers about the OGP
An extract from the Finance and Public Administration Committee hearing on Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 22 May is reproduced below
Senator Stoker (LNP Qld) new on the scene as replacement for Senator Brandis shows welcome interest in the OGP.
Senator McAllister (Labor NSW) raised questions about OGP in a previous Estimates round and raised important issues here about the consultation process, delays in implementation of commitments particularly the Beneficial Ownership commitment, and the level of ambition in reform commitments emeging for consideration for inclusion in the second national action plan.
By a happy coincidence Senator Cormann is the minister at the table. Questions to him serve as a reminder he is the responsible minister for reform plans overall.
Senator STOKER: ……..Mr Sterland, I’m interested in the government’s Open Government Partnership commitment. Can you tell the committee about the status of that project?
Mr Sterland : Yes. The government released its first national action plan a couple of years ago, and that’s mostly on track. There were 15 commitments in that, and most of the commitment is on track. There have been a few delays, but in general it’s having good progress. It’s now considering the second national action plan. The first one concludes this year. There is now a process of negotiation with civil society members of the forum who develop this action plan, to develop a new set of commitments for another action plan.
Senator STOKER: What are the outcomes that have been achieved so far?
Mr Sterland : So far, there are 15 commitments under the first action plan that cover items like protecting whistleblowers, reforms on beneficial ownership transparency, combating corporate crime, data sharing and that sort of thing.
Senator STOKER: Practically, though, what does that mean? What does that translate into?
Mr Sterland : It translates into legislation to establish greater protection for whistleblowers, for example. In this portfolio, there are about three of those 15 commitments, mainly to do with data sharing, improved use of data and protections around using public sector data, for example.
Mr Sterland : Some of the commitments relate to that, and Dr Gruen covers some of those areas within this department. My role is overseeing the whole action plan and co-chairing the Open Government Forum with civil society representatives. Two of PM&C’s own commitments in that action plan actually go to the data agenda, and it’s mainly about the use of public sector data sources and the integration of and protections around those data sources.
Senator STOKER: What is the time line for Australia’s participation in the Open Government Partnership over the next 12 to 18 months?
Mr Sterland : We’re a member of the international partnership. In the next 12 months we’re developing the next action plan—and I’ll just get the dates for you: the aim is to finalise the second action plan by 31 August this year. That will be a new set of commitments to cover the next two-year period.
Senator STOKER: Will there be a consultation process?
Mr Sterland : There’s already been a consultation process. Earlier this year we had some face-to-face consultations in Canberra, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane—I think we talked about that last time—and people were able to contribute ideas. The forum, which I co-chair, is now processing those ideas for commitments for part of the next action plan. There will be another consultation loop when those commitments are much more refined than they are now.
Senator STOKER: I know your involvement in open government goes back a number of years. Could you please talk about how the work you’re doing ties in with the other initiatives and forums that Australia participates in such as the G20.
Mr Sterland : That’s harking back a few years. Dr Gruen’s our current G2O Sherpa, but some of the commitments in that list in the actions related to our G20 presidency in 2014, and the beneficial ownership reforms come to mind particularly. I’m thinking that that’s probably the main connection with the finance part of the G20, and that was a really important push internationally for transparency and the like. Treasury’s responsible for that commitment, and it involves legislation under their control. That’s been part of, in a sense, the response to the global financial crisis and the need to understand the ownership of companies. It’s been related to clamping down on anti-money laundering and that sort of thing.
Senator STOKER: Thanks, Mr Sterland.
Senator McALLISTER: I’m quite interested in that particular initiative—how is it going?
Mr Sterland : The beneficial ownership?
Senator McALLISTER: Yes.
Mr Sterland : I think it would be better to direct those comments to Treasury.
Senator McALLISTER: Okay, but you’ve been talking about it for the last five minutes.
Mr Sterland : As I understand it, it’s under government consideration now. There’s been some public consultation, and the minister’s considering it. It’s a matter that would be with the government for decision.
Senator McALLISTER: It was supposed to be completed in August 2017?
Mr Sterland : Yes, and there’ve been some delays—it’s one of the one’s with some delays in the process.
Senator McALLISTER: What else has been delayed?
Mr Sterland : The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative has been delayed—and that’s again under consideration by government.
Senator McALLISTER: And who’s leading on that initiative?
Mr Sterland : That’s the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Senator McALLISTER: I’m just looking at the website and, for example, some of the comments on the website where you’re seeking consultation. One contributor writes—and she writes quite eloquently:
… there is … much to be done to demonstrate that it is and is intended to be a meaningful partnership between government and civil society. I say this because at the moment the engagement to date with civil society is primarily with what could be described as a small group of politically informed citizens and organisations. In other words with people and organisations that are already well-known to government. Regrettably, there has been very little attempt to communicate with civil society more broadly … very few people would know of the existence of the OGP or the website through which it conducts its outreach to the community. Meetings are held in Canberra and when they are not there seems to be no attempt to inform broader civil society about the scheduling of public forums, rather dates and times are proscribed by government and the distribution of such information is extremely limited. The website is not easy to navigate which means it is not user friendly. I do not wish to seem overly critical as I support the OGP and the ideas that form its framework but there is much to be done if the OGP is to be effective. The trust deficit between government and civil society … is very wide and there is no indication that things are improving.
Actually, the next contributor says—and this is a little bit funny:
There is a serious problem with the provision for online lodging of Responses, Comments and Submissions.
And he goes on to explain the technical problems with using the website. Do you think it’s going well, this consultation process?
Mr Sterland : I’ve come into the role since rejoining PM&C late last year, and I took this responsibility on early this year. From my point of view, the discussions within the forum have been robust. The forum members themselves have fairly wide networks of their own. The consultations were advertised widely. We’ve talked a little bit about how we can generate wider interest, but if you’re running substantial workshops in several cities you’re open to taking submissions.
The technical issues with the website, as I understand it, were little more than the normal vetting that any public sector organisation has to do, before uploading a submission, to make sure that it is okay to upload and have on a government website. We had a workshop on Friday and it was a highly productive discussion with good debates but good understanding. So, as we narrow down to more concrete commitments and consult widely, we’re trying to think about how we can broaden that consultation.
One of the issues you may find is that the group of people that’s interested in the whole set is perhaps a smaller group, and there’s a wider group that might be interested in particular elements. So there’s a data community, if you like, and there’s a transparency and integrity in government community, and they are being engaged as part of each of the commitments as well. I think it’s fair to always ask how you can do it better. I just don’t think there are any constraints in the process or any lack of effort or will among the secretariat staff that work for me that are promulgating this. It’s a fair point just to try to make it a wider consultation if we can.
Senator McALLISTER: How are you going in terms of meeting the international commitments associated with participation in this partnership?
Mr Sterland : Our main commitment is our action plan. As I said, that’s largely on track to being completed. We contribute financially to the Open Government Partnership.
Senator McALLISTER: There’s an independent reporting mechanism. Have they assessed our plan or our implementation?
Mr Sterland : Yes. It was finalised and published online on the international OGP website on 24 April this year.
Senator McALLISTER: So it’s recently been completed?
Mr Sterland : Yes.
Senator McALLISTER: Was that in the time frame you expected?
Mr Sterland : It took a bit longer, and I think that was to do with some of the vetting procedures within the international partnership.
Senator McALLISTER: What does that mean?
Mr Sterland : It was assessed by an Australian academic and submitted to the international forum, and I think their own vetting procedures meant that it took a little bit longer. For example, it was on the agenda for the first meeting I chaired, and we had to delay that because of those procedures. But it wasn’t because the academic hadn’t completed the work; it was just going through quality assurance and compliance with the requirements of the international group. We had a good discussion at the forum on it, and it was published recently.
Senator McALLISTER: I’m looking at the summary provided on the website. It suggests that the independent reporting mechanism found:
The Australian government made substantial progress in completing several commitments in areas such as combatting corporate crime and steps to improve the discoverability of government data.
It really speaks about increasing the ambition of commitments and makes some suggestions about what the government might do to increase the ambition around the plan. Is an increased ambition part of your instructions from the Prime Minister in developing the second plan?
Mr Sterland : The way I would say it is that increased ambition—or having ambition—is the intent of the Open Government Partnership Forum in putting together the action plan. We will develop that with our civil society representatives, and then there will be a government decision-making process about acceptance of those. But, the forum as a whole has an intent to make it as ambitious as possible.
Senator McALLISTER: Does the government participate or provide feedback about the work of the forum in any way? Government ministers? Who is the minister? Is it the Prime Minister?
Mr Sterland : It’s the minister sitting next to me.
Senator McALLISTER: Oh, it’s you, Senator Cormann.
Mr Sterland : In his role as Special Minister of State.
Senator McALLISTER: Have you attended any of the meetings convened by Mr Sterland?
Senator Cormann: No, I’ve not attended any meetings convened by Mr Sterland. Mr Sterland does a sterling job himself, without me looking over his shoulder. I did attend a meeting of the Open Government Partnership about a year and a half ago.
Senator McALLISTER: Are you satisfied with the delay in progressing the beneficial ownership commitment?
Senator Cormann: We progress all aspects of this as speedily as we can, given all of the constraints and all of the issues that Mr Sterland has spelled out. I am satisfied that Mr Sterland is doing a sterling job.
Senator McALLISTER: What are the constraints, as you see them, Minister, in terms of the beneficial ownership scheme?
Senator Cormann: I’m not going to get into the specifics at this point. There is a process underway. I’m comfortable that the process should continue to work its way through. At the right time and when we are in a position to make decisions we will make them, and we will make relevant announcements at the right time.
Senator McALLISTER: Can you explain the delay?
Senator Cormann: We are working through a process. Sometimes it will be—
Senator McALLISTER: Sometimes processes run to time, and sometimes they don’t. Usually there is a reason.
Senator Cormann: On this occasion there have been some delays, and we will work as fast as we can to reach our destination.
Senator McALLISTER: But you’re not able to tell me what the delays arise from?
Senator Cormann: I think it’s best if we can go back go back to Mr Sterland. I obviously don’t deal with this on a day-to-day basis.
Senator McALLISTER: But you are the responsible minister?
Senator Cormann: Sure.
Mr Sterland : The responsible minister for this commitment is, I think, Minister O’Dwyer. And the Treasury portfolio and the markets group next week. As I understand, there has been some public discussion and the matter is now with government. Treasury will be best placed to talk around any of the specific issues to do with the completion of that commitment.