Senate debates

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Open Government Partnership

9:40 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I would like to highlight inconsistent evidence provided at the recent budget estimates round by the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in relation to Australia joining the Open Government Partnership.

I first raised this issue at the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee at the additional estimates round on Monday 11 February this year. I asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet questions in relation to a letter sent from the then Attorney-General, Ms Nicola Roxon, to the Prime Minister. No witnesses could recall the letter, but the matter was taken on notice and I expect answers to my questions will be provided soon.

On Tuesday 12 February, the Attorney-General's Department and the Australian Information Commissioner informed me that the Attorney-General's Department is the lead agency in respect of Australia's membership of the Open Government Partnership; that the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wrote to the Australian government in August 2011 about Australia joining the Open Government Partnership; that this letter had not been responded to; and that the Attorney-General wrote to the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, on 27 June 2012 to inform him that the Attorney-General had written to the Prime Minister, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy with a proposal that Australia join the Open Government Partnership. And the committee ascertained that Australia had met the criteria for joining the Open Government Partnership.

Hansard records this exchange:

Senator FAULKNER: … Is there, for example, some form of IDC that has been established to work through this issue? You made the point in answer to previous questions, Ms Kelly, that there are other agencies, which I accept. Of course there are other agencies that have an interest in these issues. Is there an IDC, or some internal government mechanism that allows other agencies and, obviously, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and others to do the necessary work here?

Ms E Kelly: There has not been an IDC established at this point, …

Following on from the next question, Hansard records that the witness said:

Ms E Kelly: We have not started the consultation process with a view to developing the action plan.

I was surprised to hear that the Attorney-General's Department, as the lead agency, had not responded to the United States government and had not established an interdepartmental committee on this issue.

However, I was more surprised to hear the conflicting evidence about an IDC provided two days later on 14 February this year at the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade Legislation Committee. At that committee, Hansard records Mr R Rowe saying:

We have, at officials level, been participating in the interdepartmental committee which has been led by the Attorney-General's Department, which has been considering how to develop a coordinated, whole-of-government approach. Mr Rowe went on to explain that the Australian government had not only received high-level communications from the United States Secretary of State but also received a letter from the United Kingdom's Minister for the Cabinet Office, who wrote to the Australian foreign minister about the same matter in January of this year. Neither letter had been responded to—but, to be fair to DFAT, it had been less than a month since the letter from the United Kingdom had been received. An official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also assisted the committee's understanding of why the letters were not responded to, so let me quote Mr Rowe from Hansard again:

It is because this is a relatively new initiative. It is a whole-of-government initiative. DFAT is not the lead coordinator on this. There is a process that has been launched by another agency, which we have been party to, and we have been actively involved. So the reply has been held pending the identification of a coordinated, whole-of-government response.

So let me summarise for the benefit of senators. On Tuesday, 12 February, I asked the Attorney-General's Department if an interdepartmental committee had commenced in relation to the Open Government Partnership. The Attorney-General's Department witnesses assured the committee that no IDC existed and the process had not started. On Thursday, 14 February, I asked a similar question of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I was told that an IDC did exist. In fact, the committee heard:

The IDC has met several times … at director level …

…   …   …

The IDC met most recently in January.

Well, where does the truth lie?

Tonight I request that the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade explain the inconsistencies in the evidence they have provided to the Senate. I request that a clear statement be made on this important matter of the Open Government Partnership as soon as possible in relation to, first of all, the existence of an interdepartmental committee on the Open Government Partnership. I also want to know its membership, the dates of its meetings and its work program. It goes without saying that, if any inaccurate or misleading evidence was provided to either Senate committee, as I have referred to, that is a matter on which I think action should be taken as soon as possible to ensure that the record is corrected. As Senator Feeney is in the chamber at the moment—and doing overtime—I do hope that Senator Feeney will draw my concerns to the attention of Attorney-General Dreyfus and Foreign Minister Carr.

Senate adjourned at 21:49