Ombudsman's office, 1977 - 1985 (Prof. Jack Richardson)
Professor Jack Richardson instituted and developed the office's reputation for intellectual rigour and a robust approach to public administration.
He oversaw the first critical years and guided the office through substantial changes and growth in jurisdiction and case load.
In March 1977, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced the appointment of Professor Jack Richardson as the first Commonwealth Ombudsman for a seven-year term.
The Ombudsman opened a Canberra office in July 1977 with five staff members.
The Ombudsman soon established offices in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Staff numbers increased to 32 by July 1978.
A handful of government departments and authorities questioned the new Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. The occasion did not arise for the Ombudsman to use the powers referred by sections 15, 16 and 17 of the Ombudsman Act to make a formal report to an agency, the Prime Minister or Parliament.
The second Annual Report of the Ombudsman reported a ‘predominately cooperative’ relationship with government agencies.
The Ombudsman’s office received a significant increase in oral complaints (around 5,000 complaints). With the cooperation of agencies, the Ombudsman began conducting less formal complaint inquiries, thus enabling faster resolution of less complex complaints.
The Ombudsman opened regional offices in Adelaide and Brisbane, and established agency arrangements with the Tasmanian and Northern Territory State Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman’s outreach activities included developing information in 21 community languages.
The Ombudsman did not use his formal powers during the year, but did publish a letter from Treasury Secretary John Stone relating to a lengthy complaint investigation and the Secretary’s opposition to the Ombudsman’s involvement.
‘You are incorrect in interpreting my letter of 8 August as an expression if interest in [your] methods of operation. My letter expresses no such interest. What it did express was my astonishment that it should have taken your Office several months to arrive at the blindingly obvious conclusion that Mr A’s complaints were not worth the paper they were written on …’.
The Ombudsman’s jurisdiction over agencies such as the Bicentennial Authority was questioned on several occasions during the year, causing the Ombudsman to seek an amendment to the Ombudsman Act to allow him to apply to the Federal Court for a determination in disputes about jurisdiction.
The Ombudsman’s office increased its range of outreach activities, conducting regional visits throughout Australia and also targeting Aboriginals and ethnic groups.
The Minister for Defence announced legislation amending the Ombudsman Act to confer upon the Ombudsman the function of Defence Force Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman made the first Section 16 report to the Prime Minister when the Director-General of Social Services failed to act on the Ombudsman’s recommendation relating to the denial of unemployment benefits for school leavers.
The Complaints (Australian Federal Police) Act 1981 was enacted by the Parliament. The Act conferred upon the Ombudsman the function of reviewing the AFP’s internal investigation of complaints from members of the public. The Act also confirmed the Ombudsman’s general role of investigating complaints about police action.
The Ombudsman’s Annual Report included a chapter on Australian Capital Territory complaints, dealing with the Ombudsman’s report to the ACT House of Assembly, the Ombudsman’s handling of ACT matters.
The Freedom of Information Act 1982 commenced operation on 1 December 1982. The new law allowed people to make complaints to the Ombudsman about the handling by agencies of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from members of the public.
The Ombudsman’s ‘Bamboozled by the Bureaucracy’ advertising campaign on milk cartons upset senior bureaucrats and is said to have put more than one senior official off his Weetbix.
The total number of approaches (complaints and inquiries) to the Ombudsman’s office exceeded 20,000 for the first time.
The Ombudsman noted that the increase in complaints had grown proportionately greater than population growth.
Amendments to the Ombudsman Act that had been foreshadowed in previous Annual Reports came into effect during 1983-84. The amendments to included:
- removal of the distinction between the formal and informal complaint investigation process
- allowing the Ombudsman to exercise formal powers without receiving a written complaint
- improved confidentiality provisions for people in custody, which allowed them to make a confidential complaints to the Ombudsman
- allowing the Ombudsman to comment publicly on public interest matters
- allowing the Ombudsman to make special reports to the Parliament about investigations with wider implications
- allowing the Ombudsman or an agency to apply to the Federal Court for a determination in disputes involving uncertainty about jurisdiction
- providing the Ombudsman with jurisdiction over agency action in advising a Minister
- giving the Ombudsman jurisdiction over the activities of advisory bodies whose members were not public servants, and
- clarifying the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction over the actions of agencies inside and outside Australia and in external territories.
The AFP Complaints Act was also amended to reflect these changes.
Out of the mouths of babes
The Ombudsman’s role is to discover the truth - sometimes with surprising results…
In 1983-84, a Telecom subscriber complained that he had been overcharged. He said there was a major discrepancy between his records and Telecom’s charges. Telecom later connected a call record printer to the family line, analysed the record of the calls, and discussed them with the complainant.
Following the Telecom analysis, the complainant wrote to the Ombudsman’s office: ’Our records are not as accurate as we would like to believe… Examination of the numbers called shows that the fault lies largely with my younger daughter’.
Amendments to the FOI Act provided the Ombudsman with the power to represent people seeking review of adverse FOI decisions in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. However, resources were not made available to the office to perform this function and staffing constraints prevented the Ombudsman from discharging the role to the fullest. During the first year, the Ombudsman reported that the office had only represented one person on an FOI matter before the AAT. The role was later removed by an amendment to the FOI Act in 1991.
The Ombudsman appointed an additional Deputy Ombudsman (Defence Force).
1984 - 85
The Ombudsman tabled his first Section 17 report in Parliament after the Australian Broadcasting Commission ‘flatly rejected’ recommendations made by the Ombudsman after the investigation of the long running Cotton Case involving a complaint about an ABC television program.
The Ombudsman also reported to the Prime Minister under Section 16 of the Ombudsman Act after the Minister for Finance rejected the Ombudsman’s recommendation that a sugar manufacturing company should receive an act of grace payment for identifiable financial detriment caused by the mis-reading of tender documents for an Army sugar contract.
The Ombudsman identified problems with arrangements for act of grace payments, especially in cases where there was no legal liability. He suggested a review of procedures.
Complaints to the Ombudsman continued to increase. The Ombudsman reported a ‘Crisis in resources’ in his 1984 - 85 Annual Report.
In 1984 - 85 a taxpayer believed that the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) had added someone else’s bank interest to his income for 1977, 1978 and 1979. He told the Ombudsman’s office that he had not been able to resolve the matter with the ATO because of frequent changes in the staff handling the case.
His problem was exacerbated by the ATO sending his income tax assessments to an address where he did not live, and had never lived. He believed that the interest credited to his account was that of the occupant of that address, whose tax file number was similar to his.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that the man had been incorrectly taxed for the other taxpayer’s interest. The investigation also found that the man had not declared all of his own interest. The ATO issued the man with an amended assessment, and did not penalise him for the non-declaration of bank interest.