Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Parliament this week. Photo: Andrew Meares Illustration: Matt Davidson.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put government transparency on the agenda by signing up to an international agreement designed to make public administrations more open and accountable.
In what has been viewed as a notable departure from his predecessor Tony Abbott, Mr Turnbull’s department has decided Australia will become a member of the Open Government Partnership, joining dozens of countries that have also signed up to the cause.
The partnership was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for governments to be more open and responsive to the community, but Australia has spent several years considering whether to proceed with membership, which was first foreshadowed by the Gillard government before it was swept from power.
The decision to get involved now means the government must develop a national plan to be released in July, which will outline how it intends to improve transparency and integrity in the public’s interest.
“Joining the OGP is a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate leadership in open government practices, to work alongside G20 counterparts in encouraging cooperation and combating corruption, and to share knowledge on improving public services and better managing public resources,” a spokeswoman for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said.
The decision to join the international partnership was made with little fanfare last month, and integrity advocates have welcomed the move in the wake of a series of setbacks, such as an attempt under Mr Abbott to abolish to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, cuts to Freedom of Information funding, and ongoing government secrecy surrounding asylum seeker boats.
About 68 other countries are also participating in the initiative, including the US, the UK, Spain, Finland and Indonesia.
FOI specialist Peter Timmins said Australia’s involvement in the Open Government Partnership was “long overdue”, and that he hoped it would lead to debate on range of issues, such as freedom-of-information laws, the lack of a federal anti-corruption body, and political donation reform. Accountability Round Table chair Tim Smith also welcomed the decision.
“This move to at last engage in the international Open Government Partnership is very welcome, particularly when so many have despaired about the state of our democracy and felt powerless to fix it,” Mr Smith said. “But with all political parties now aligned, serious and much-needed reform seems possible. ART will wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity to engage in the process.”
Mr Turnbull’s department will spend the next six months asking the community for ideas and specific commitments that the government should consider as part of its action plan, which must be delivered by mid-2016.
Meanwhile, in Victoria, government integrity will also be on the agenda this week, when the Andrews government introduces long-awaited laws to strengthen the state’s anti-corruption and financial watchdogs.
Under the changes, the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission the authority to examine a new common law offence – misconduct in public office – and the amount of evidence IBAC must gather before an investigation can formally begin will be reduced.
The Auditor-General will also get the power to “follow-the-dollar” on public-private-partnerships, while the Ombudsman’s office will be revamped to give people more avenues to lodge complaints.
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