Ombudsman's office, 1998-2003 (Ron McLeod)
Mr Ron McLeod came to the office from a wide-ranging career in government. This equipped him to foster good relationships with agencies during a time of substantial change in the public sector.
A noteworthy achievement has been the Government's acceptance of the office's role in relation to the outsourcing of government functions. Mr McLeod was the first Commonwealth Ombudsman to be a member of the board of the International Ombudsman Institute.
The new Commonwealth Ombudsman, Mr Ron McLeod, commenced his term on 18 February 1998. In his first annual report he reported a modest decline in the number of complaints received for the year, attributing the change to an improvement in standards of service and the improved mechanisms now in place in most agencies for handling complaints.
In January 1998 the former Commonwealth Ombudsman, Ms Philippa Smith, released a report discussing risk management procedures for agencies providing oral advice to their clients entitled Issues Relating to Oral Advice - Clients Beware.
The Ombudsman also released an own motion investigation into the Child Support Agency’s (CSA) recovery of overpayments from payees. The investigation revealed a number of shortcomings in the CSA’s procedures for recovery of overpayments, and the Ombudsman made several recommendations. The CSA’s responded positively to the investigation, and adopted recommendations to improve administrative processes for recovering child support overpayments and to make recovery action fairer and less confusing.
Reports were also made on the following issues:
- external funding of Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) research
- onshore refugee processing
- an investigation into the use of DIMA search warrant powers
- detention of Indonesian fishermen caught fishing illegally in Australian waters.
The Ombudsman reported an 8 per cent increase in the number of complaints handled from the previous year. Whilst noting that internal complaint handling mechanisms in agencies had improved, he suggested that the tapering off of publicity which was associated with the initial launch of service charters had led complainants back to contacting the Ombudsman’s office due to its long standing and well recognised complaint-handling role.
It was noted that the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) was the subject of a large rise in complaints due to the Commissioner’s handling of a specific tax effective financing scheme known as Budplan.
Centrelink was also the source of a large number of complaints due to the introduction of new youth programs and the rollout of a new computer system.
The Ombudsman issued a report of an investigation into the ATO’s disallowance of tax deductions made by investors in an arrangement known as Budplan. The office received 1600 complaints from investors who faced large tax liabilities as a result of the ATO’s actions.
It was the largest single tax issue investigated by the office, with the Ombudsman concluding that the ATO had acted correctly in disallowing the deductions, noting that the ultimate decision as to the legality of the Budplan deductions would probably be made in the courts, though he was satisfied that the Commissioner’s decision was reasonable.
An own motion inquiry was also conducted into the administration of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act by departments and agencies, after a trend in complaints indicated that there were certain administrative problems in the handling of FOI requests.
The report entitled Needs to Know detailed widespread problems in the recording of FOI decisions and probable misuse of the exemption provisions in some instances to avoid disclosure of information particularly in those agencies which are more likely to receive requests about government policy matters.
The Ombudsman concluded that some of the principles of the original legislation had been forgotten or were not fully understood by some of the managers working in Australian Government Agencies. The Ombudsman made recommendations designed to reinforce the principles and provisions contained in the FOI Act. Most agencies indicated that they would take steps consistent with the recommendations.
Changes to the Migration Act 1958 prevented the Ombudsman from delivering sealed envelopes to non-complainant detainees in Immigration Detention Centres. The Ombudsman believed there were insufficient grounds for modifying the Act in this manner, but noted it had never been the practice of the office to offer unsolicited advice via confidential mail. He noted there were other means through which he could make contact with such persons if it was considered essential.
The Ombudsman’s annual report noted that complaints received were in excess of 20,000 for the fifth consecutive year. He also noted the exercise of the office’s discretion not to investigate had steadily increased over the last few years from 50 per cent in the early 1990s to 72 per cent in 1999 - 2000.
A combination of factors had led to this development. The office had increasingly stressed over the previous years that complainants would be expected to first utilise all other avenues of redress available to them, particularly within the agency concerned. The Ombudsman noted that all major agencies with significant public contact now had their own established internal arrangements for dealing with complaints.
The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was one of the major issues of the year, with the Ombudsman noting that the short timeframe in which the legislation was introduced placed significant strain on the ATO. There were only a small number of complaints made to the office relating to defects in administration during the initial phase.
The Ombudsman proposed some modest changes to the Ombudsman Act via the Administrative Review Council, aimed at facilitating the office’s processes. He noted that the Government had still to express a view on the issue of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction over contractors providing services on behalf of the government. The Ombudsman noted the proposals had not yet been approved.
In excess of 20,000 complaints were again lodged, showing some stability in the amount of work presented before the office each year. However, taxation related complaints increased by around 60 per cent on the previous year due to the first year’s implementation of the GST and continuing difficulties with the ATO’s handling of mass marketed investment schemes.
A small group of specialist Social Support analysts was established in Canberra to strengthen the contribution the office made to the efficiency of public administration.
Increases in the number of people held in Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) attracted considerable public attention. The Ombudsman released public reports into conditions in IDCs and immigration detainees held in State prisons.
The Ombudsman’s report on IDCs examined conditions and the treatment of detainees, recommending that DIMA pursue alternatives to detention for families, women, children and individuals with special needs. The Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock MP announced there would be a trial of placing a limited number of women and children outside the IDC at Woomera.
The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade report on visits to IDCs noted the need for appropriate independent persons to whom complaints can be brought by detainees about allegations of harsh and unfair treatment. The Joint Standing Committee also expressed concerns that the majority of detainees had little understanding of the role of the Ombudsman’s office. The Ombudsman suggested this was due to the remote location of many IDCs and the difficulty the office faces in maintaining a reasonable presence at a time when detainee populations were continually changing.
The Parliament was in the process of considering several proposals for amendment to the Ombudsman Act that would enable the Ombudsman to investigate the actions of the National Crime Authority (Australian Crime Commission) in much the same way that the actions of other agencies were investigated. There were also proposals made in relation to other areas of law enforcement, which would represent a significant upgrading of the responsibilities of the Ombudsman in this area, and would reflect the confidence Parliament held in the office.
The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit agreed with the amendments to the Ombudsman Act proposed in 1999 - 2000 in recommending the Ombudsman’s office have jurisdiction over the actions of contractors engaged by government agencies. The government was considering its response.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislative Committee also considered a Private Member’s Bill by Senator Murray that the Ombudsman’s office should be made the Freedom of Information Commissioner. The Government’s response had not yet been formulated.
The total number of complaints received was 13 per cent lower than the previous year, falling below 20,000. The reduction was due largely to a general fall across all jurisdictions, but was particularly pronounced in the taxation area where the initial difficulties with the introduction of the GST and the new tax arrangements in the previous year tapered off.
Better public knowledge of the existence of complaint handling units in the larger agencies was seen to be reducing the need for some people to contemplate approaching the Ombudsman’s office.
The Ombudsman’s office continued to provide the only independent, impartial and informal avenue for taxpayers to raise their concerns about the administration of the fledgling tax system.
Immigration complaints continued to rise in a year where there was considerable media attention devoted to immigration matters, particularly the policy of mandatory detention.
Conditions in detention centres were a focus of many complaints to the office, and staff undertook a number of visits to Immigration Detention Centres. The Ombudsman expressed his concern at the number of women and children in detention despite his earlier recommendation that alternatives should be developed.
The Ombudsman was given jurisdiction to investigate the actions of the National Crime Authority (now Australian Crime Commission).
During the year, the Ombudsman’s role in oversighting law enforcement bodies was also expanded, with the Ombudsman given the task of inspecting and reporting on the records of controlled operations by the Australian Federal Police and the National Crime Authority.
The Ombudsman was also consulted in the course of preparation of anti-terrorism legislation before it was brought to Parliament. The Ombudsman’s concern was to ensure the right of people held in custody to contact the Ombudsman was preserved.