History of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

The first Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor Jack Richardson, was appointed in March 1977. This section contains a general history of administrative law and the establishment of Ombudsman's office in Australia, changes in responsibilities of the office and details of the Ombudsman’s role.

Introduction

An ombudsman is an official, usually (but not always) appointed by the government or parliament, who is charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens. The modern meaning arose from its use in Sweden with the Parliamentary Ombudsman instituted in 1809 to safeguard the rights of citizens by establishing a supervisory agency independent of the executive branch. The word ombudsman is not gender specific. Its specific meaning has since been adopted into English as well as other languages, and ombudsmen have been instituted by many other governments and organisations. The origin of the word is found in Old Norse and the word umbuds man, meaning representative. The first preserved use in Swedish is from 1552. It is also used in the other Scandinavian languages such as the Icelandic umboðsmaður, the Norwegian ombudsman and the Danish ombudsmand.

New Zealand became the first English speaking country to appoint an ombudsman in 1962. The office of the United Kingdom Ombudsman was established in 1967.

The first Ombudsman in Australia was appointed in Western Australia in 1971, and was followed by the appointment of an ombudsman in Victoria in 1972, and in Queensland and New South Wales in 1974.

Legislation to establish an office of Commonwealth Ombudsman was enabled in 1976, and the first Commonwealth Ombudsman commenced operation on 1 July 1977.

The concept of the ombudsman as an independent person who can investigate and resolve disputes between citizens and government has spread to over 120 countries and is seen to be an essential accountability mechanism in democratic societies.

The Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association, of which the Commonwealth Ombudsman is a member, has adopted a policy statement on use of the term Ombudsman.

For a history of Ombudsman offices, see the ANZOA Ombudsman chronology.

Office establishment

The office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman was established by the Ombudsman Act 1976, and is administered by the Prime Minister. In 1971, the Commonwealth Administrative Review Committee issued a report recommending the establishment of a Commonwealth Ombudsman. The committee proposed a new and distinctive system of administrative law in Australia. It envisaged that the Ombudsman would play a part, along with courts and administrative tribunals, in examining government administrative action.

The office commenced operation on 1 July 1977. Since then, eight Commonwealth Ombudsmen have been in office. Over time the responsibilities of the Ombudsman have expanded to cover:

  • complaints about the Australian Federal Police (AFP) - 1981
  • complaints about freedom of information - 1982
  • Defence Force Ombudsman role - 1983
  • Compliance auditing of AFP and National Crime Authority (now Australian Crime Commission (ACC)) telecommunication intercept records - 1988
  • Australian Capital Territory Ombudsman - 1989
  • Taxation Ombudsman role - 1995
  • The tax complaint handling role was transferred to the Inspector-General of Taxation effective from 1 May 2015. Click here for further information

  • Monitoring controlled (covert) operations by the AFP and ACC and other agencies - 2001
  • Auditing the use of surveillance devices by the AFP and ACC - 2004
  • assessing and reporting on the detention of long-term (two years or more) immigration detainees - 2005
  • Immigration Ombudsman role - 2005
  • Complaints about Commonwealth service providers - 2005
  • Postal Industry Ombudsman role - 2006
  • Compliance auditing of access to stored communications by the AFP, ACC, Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and other enforcement agencies (such as the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Customs Service), and the use of surveillance devices by state law enforcement agencies under Commonwealth legislation - 2006
  • Law Enforcement Ombudsman role, with a specific responsibility to review the adequacy and comprehensiveness of the AFP complaint-handling system - 2006
  • Public interest disclosure oversight, education and promotion - 2013

Who we are

The Swedish Parliament first used the word 'ombudsman' in its modern sense when in 1809 it established the office of Justitie-ombudsman, who was to function as a defender of the people in their dealings with government. Since then, similar offices have been established in over 100 countries worldwide, most of which are affiliated with the International Ombudsman Institute. The Australasian and Pacific Ombudsman Region Information Manual describes the member offices in this region.

In Australia, there is a Commonwealth Ombudsman as well as State and Territory ombudsman.

An increasing concern with service quality and customer satisfaction in a range of industries has led to the introduction of a wide variety of dispute resolution and complaint schemes, which assist consumers to settle their differences with suppliers of goods and services informally and quickly.

In addition, a number of industry ombudsman have been appointed, whose responsibility it is to protect citizens’ interests in their dealings with a variety of service providers, especially in industries previously owned or regulated by governments, for example telecommunications, energy, banking and insurance.

Most Ombudsman offices in Australia are members of the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association.

Ombudsman's role

We consider and investigate complaints from people who believe they have been treated unfairly or unreasonably by an Australian Government department or agency, including Australia Post, Centrelink, Child Support Agency, and Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also the ACT Ombudsman.

Our aim is to resolve complaints impartially, informally and quickly. If we cannot assist with a particular complaint, we will explain why, and suggest other avenues for resolving the matter.

We cannot override the decisions of the agencies we deal with, nor issue directions to their staff. Instead, we resolve disputes through consultation and negotiation, and if necessary, by making formal recommendations to the most senior levels of government. Since the inception of the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office in 1977, we have assisted in resolving many thousands of individual complaints, and brought about significant improvements in the quality of government administration.

Our annual report provides details of the numbers and types of complaints we deal with, and the ways in which they are resolved. Our strategic plan and portfolio budget statements (The Commonwealth Ombudsman is part of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet portfolio. This is a link to their website.) explain our goals and priorities, and how our agency’s operations are organised and funded.

Australian Administrative Law in the 1960s and 1970s

The administrative processes of government were increasingly impacting on Australians during the 1960s and 1970s, but there was no coordinated approach to administrative law reform that could offset the problems created by the new administrative complexity.

Ordinary Australians had no realistic or affordable means to test administrative actions or decisions. Access to redress via the courts -  through a judicial review process marked by rigidity and the inherent danger that justice could be denied by a technicality.

A significant point in the development of an Australian Ombudsman was the passage of the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act through the New Zealand Parliament in 1962.

Three years later, Mr Justice Else-Mitchell, then a member of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, provided the impetus for administrative law reform in Australia when he delivered a paper titled ‘The Place of the Administrative Tribunal in 1965’ at the Third Commonwealth and Empire Law Conference in Sydney.

Between 1968 and 1973, the Federal Government established three committees to examine administrative decision making and review in Australia.

The Kerr Committee

On 29 October 1968, the Government established the Commonwealth Administrative Review Committee, known as ‘The Kerr Committee’ after its Chairman Sir John Kerr, then a member of the Commonwealth Industrial Court.

On 14 October 1971, the Kerr Committee presented a report recommending the establishment of:

  • a general counsel for grievances (an Ombudsman)
  • an administrative review council
  • an administrative review tribunal
  • a codified judicial review system before a specialist court, and
  • an administrative procedure statute.

The Kerr Committee saw the Ombudsman as a ‘general counsel for grievances’ set in the area of administrative review, rather than in a parliamentary executive situation.

The Kerr Committee suggested that the general counsel for grievances should be associated with a general appeal tribunal and other review institutions.

The Bland and Ellicott Committees

Following the release of the Kerr Committee’s report, the Government appointed two committees to further examine administrative law reform in Australia, known as the Bland and Ellicott Committees.

On 19 January 1973, the Bland Committee made an interim report proposing the establishment of an Ombudsman’s office.

The Ellicott Committee’s report of 29 May 1973 recommended that the Government should adopt the Kerr Committee’s judicial review proposals, including that the Government should appoint a general counsel for grievances or an ombudsman.

In effect, the Kerr, Bland and Ellicott Committees recognised that the existing avenues of redress for people having problems with administrative actions and decisions were complex, expensive and difficult to access for many Australians.

During his delivery of the second reading speech on the Ombudsman Bill to the House of Representatives in June 1976, Mr Ellicott said that the most important element of the new legislation was that it would provide the citizen with a legitimate complaint about official action with access to an impartial investigator to inquire into the matter.

'The strength of the ombudsman’s work lies in the independence and impartiality of his investigation’, Mr Ellicott said.

The Commonwealth Parliament passed three major pieces of legislation as the result of the reports by the Kerr, Bland and Ellicott Committees.

These Acts recognise four bodies as elements in a comprehensive structure:

  • the office of Ombudsman established by the Ombudsman Act 1976
  • a general administrative appeal tribunal - the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) established by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975
  • a new system of judicial review - introduced by the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977
  • a body to monitor and review the new structure - the Administrative Review Council established by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1976.

An Australian Ombudsman

Before he became Prime Minister in 1972, Gough Whitlam foreshadowed the appointment of an Ombudsman as a ‘guardian of the people’.

The Ombudsman would investigate complaints from members of the public about unjust treatment by government departments and authorities and would report directly to Parliament.

The Whitlam Government introduced the Ombudsman Bill into Commonwealth Parliament in 1975, but it lapsed with the double dissolution of both houses in November 1975.

The Government headed by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reintroduced the Ombudsman Bill in June 1976, and in March 1977, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Professor Jack Richardson as Commonwealth Ombudsman for a seven-year term.

When announcing the appointment of the Ombudsman in the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, said: ‘The establishment of the office is directed towards ensuring the departments and authorities are responsible, adaptive, and sensitive to the needs of citizens’.

Since its establishment, the Ombudsman’s office has received hundreds of thousands of complaints, and made many reports and recommendations to improve public administration.