Ombudsman's office, 1991-1992 (Alan Cameron)
Mr Alan Cameron undertook his appointment in a time of change. He achieved a great deal in a short time, improving the office's professional management.
Improving relationships with agencies and other Ombudsman was a feature of his tenure.
Professor Dennis Pearce completed his term on 31 January 1991, and Mr Alan Cameron took up the position of Ombudsman from 1 April 1991.
The new Ombudsman pledged to make the office and its services more visible to the public and to ensure that people who required the office’s services would have ready access to the office. He said the office should also work towards remedying the underlying causes of complaints.
On 13 December 1990, the Prime Minister announced that the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration would review the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office. The terms of reference for the review would include:
- the scope of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction
- the office’s performance in terms of its powers and functions
- the adequacy of the office’s resources to perform its various functions, and
- whether any consequential amendments to the Ombudsman Act were desirable.
The new Commonwealth Ombudsman, Alan Cameron, called for an urgent allocation of funds to pay for an education campaign.
He told a Parliamentary inquiry that large groups of ‘unsophisticated Australians’, particularly in remote areas, were not aware of his office’s services.
Mr Cameron said there was no point in having an Ombudsman’s office if ordinary Australians did not have access to it.
The Ombudsman expressed concern about the high proportion of complaints in the Australian Federal Police jurisdiction which were found to be incapable of determination, and said the difficulty might be overcome if the Ombudsman’s office could conduct its own investigation of police complaints in appropriate cases.
The government announced a proposal to establish a Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) scheme. The Commonwealth Ombudsman was given jurisdiction over the new merged Telecom/OTC until the establishment of the TIO, which was planned for 1 January 1993.
The Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration made a series of recommendations aimed at maintaining and strengthening the Ombudsman’s contribution to public administration in Australia. The recommendations included:
- promoting consistency in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction across all Commonwealth bodies unless there were sound reasons for an exception
- that on the question of jurisdiction over quasi-commercial government bodies, the Ombudsman’s office did not present an impediment to the commercial efficiency of any organisation, and that effective complaint handling may improve efficiency
- the Ombudsman’s powers should not be increased because the Committee felt that greater determinative-type powers could affect the Ombudsman’s cooperative relationship with agencies.
The Committee recommended some funding improvements and acknowledged that funding was the government’s responsibility.
The Committee found that police complaints raised special issues, including that the present level of review was unsatisfactory, and that if the Ombudsman’s office was not properly resourced to provide a police review function, then the role should be removed from the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
In general, the Committee concluded that the Ombudsman’s prime function was the prompt and effective resolution of large numbers of public complaints.
The Ombudsman expressed concern about the use of the word ‘Ombudsman’ in contexts other than for traditional and Parliamentary ombudsmen. He referred to the proliferation of industry ombudsmen as ‘Ombudsmania’ and pointed to the proposed creation of ombudsman appointments in superannuation, the legal profession, the petroleum industry and even football.
The Ombudsman highlighted new ‘commercial’ complaints in his annual report, perhaps reflecting an increase in the number of corporatised government services. This new section of the report highlighted problems with Commonwealth purchasing, the Insurance and Superannuation Commission, the Australian Securities Commission, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Federal Airports Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia Post, and the Australian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation.
The Child Support Agency jumped to being the third most complained about agency.
Complaints about the Australian Federal Police arising from the AIDEX demonstration in Canberra late in 1991 totalled 167. The Ombudsman received extra resources to investigate a sample of these complaints.
The high number of unresolved police complaints caused the Ombudsman to examine the standard of proof for disciplinary matters. The Ombudsman claimed that the use of the criminal standard (proof beyond reasonable doubt) rather than the civil standard (proof on the balance of probabilities) was a significant contributor to the problem.
Amendments to the Bankruptcy Act gave the Ombudsman the power to request the Inspector-General in Bankruptcy to review certain actions by private trustees.
Several provisions of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act were repealed, including those that allowed the Ombudsman to appear on behalf of a complainant before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on FOI matters as counsel.
Police Move On powers...
In 1991-92, the Ombudsman reported the case of a Canberra man who was the first person to be arrested under the ACT’s new Move On powers.
The arrested man complained to the Ombudsman about his treatment by the arresting officers. The Ombudsman’s investigation centred on whether the man should have been arrested at all, because prior to his arrest, he had not been behaving violently and had not broken the law.
As part of the Ombudsman’s investigation process, the Australian Government Solicitor advised the Australian Federal Police that the arrest was unlawful, and that the man should be compensated for his treatment.
Child Support inflexibility…
In 1991-92 the Ombudsman reported on the case of a Child Support Scheme payer who complained that the Child Support Agency (CSA) would not credit the health fund contributions he was making to the payee as child support - even though the payee’s solicitor had written to the payer requesting the health fund payments.
Despite the solicitor’s letter, the CSA would not credit the payer’s account unless it received a letter from the payee stating that the payments should be taken as part of child maintenance.
In this case, as in many CSA cases, the relationship between the payer and the payee was not good, and the payee refused to provide the letter. Following the Ombudsman’s intervention, the CSA reluctantly agreed to credit the payer’s account with the health fund payments.