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The jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Ombudsman extends to nearly all Australian Government agencies. However, the vast majority of the complaints we receive relate to the agencies covered earlier in this chapter. The remaining 2,002 (or 12%) of the complaints we received in 2004–05 related to 84 agencies in 16 portfolios. Table 4.2 sets out the ten other agencies about which most complaints were received.
This section provides some examples of complaints handled by the Ombudsman and the themes taken up by the office, to illustrate the diversity of issues handled each year. These examples show the variety of situations in which people seek assistance in handling the difficulties they encounter with government. Complaints also present an opportunity to improve government administrative practice.
Some of the more interesting complaints came from agencies that do not make the list of 'top ten other agencies', as can be seen from the complaint issues relating to the Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS).
During 2004–05, significant changes were made to the policy responsibilities of FaCS. Previously, the department had policy responsibility for most payments and programs administered by Centrelink. Responsibility for a number of these assistance programs and payments has been transferred to the Department of Education, Science and Training and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR).
We gave particular attention to three areas of FaCS's responsibility during the year: the $600 one-off payment for families; the marriage-like relationship policy; and the extension of advance payments.
$600 one-off payment for families
The 2004 Budget provided that a $600 one-off payment (per child) would be paid to families who, on Budget night on 11 May 2004, were entitled to receive fortnightly instalments of Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTB). The bonus payment was to be paid in June 2004.
Following the introduction of this bonus payment, we received complaints about non-payment of the entitlement by Centrelink. Some parents had been told that they could not be paid the bonus payment in June because their FTB had been cancelled or suspended for various reasons prior to Budget night. This was despite the fact that their FTB had since been restored and backdated.
FaCS had taken the view that some parents were not eligible to receive the payment in June 2004 because of the terms of the family assistance legislation. However, a special administrative scheme had been established to ensure that those families would be paid by September/October 2004.
We took the view that there was no legal reason why these families should wait until September/October 2004 to be paid. FaCS agreed with this view and took steps to ensure that appropriate payments were made. FaCS later advised that the number of customers paid as a result of our office's inquiry was 6,117, with a total outlay of $3.32 million.
Numerous complaints to the office during the year raised a variety of issues relating to the implementation of the marriage-like relationship policy.
The relationship status of a customer is important for social security purposes. A person's eligibility for a social security payment and their rate of payment can be affected if they are considered to be a 'member of a couple'. The Social Security Act 1991 sets out a number of options for the meaning of a 'member of a couple'. For example, a person may be a member of a couple if they are considered to be in a marriage-like relationship.
Given the importance of a person's relationship status to their social security entitlements, the office commenced an own motion investigation to examine the policy underpinning the administration of marriage-like relationships under the social security law. This investigation will continue into 2005–06.
Advance payments are available to most income support recipients, but not for those receiving Parenting Payment (Partnered). We reported on this issue in previous annual reports and recommended to FaCS that the advance payment scheme available to income support recipients should be extended to Parenting Payment (Partnered) customers.
The basis for our recommendation was that it was unreasonable and discriminatory to exclude recipients of the partnered rate from the advance payment scheme. The Ombudsman was informed that the recommendation had merit, and that legislative change would be considered. Some time elapsed without any formal commitment to or timetable for legislative change.
In late 2004 the Ombudsman made a formal report to the Prime Minister under s 16 of the Ombudsman Act, recommending that the advance payment scheme be extended. The Prime Minister subsequently informed the Ombudsman that the government had decided that Parenting Payment (Partnered) recipients should be able to access advance payments. As matters relating to Parenting Payment customers now fall within the portfolio responsibility of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, policy responsibility for this change has transferred from FaCS to DEWR.
DEWR is one of many government agencies that manage financial assistance schemes and other programs that provide grants or financial concessions to individuals and companies.
In last year's annual report, we outlined the work we had undertaken with DEWR in relation to the administration of the General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme (GEERS). Complaint issues regarding GEERS accounted for 163 (or 44%) of the 370 DEWR complaint issues finalised in 2004–05, compared to 118 complaint issues (or 40%) in the previous year.
Of the 163 complaint issues about GEERS, we investigated 28%. While the number of complaints is small in comparison with the 11,376 GEERS claims processed by DEWR in 2004–05, there has been a noticeable increase in complaints during the year.
Following discussion with DEWR in mid-2004, our data showed a marked decline in complaints about GEERS. As the year progressed, complaint numbers again rose. This reflects the complex nature of some GEERS issues. Late in 2004–05, DEWR initiated further discussion, which has been a constructive way of addressing a range of complex issues that are highlighted in the case studies: Company restructures—the 'corporate veil' and Creditor priority. Another program administered by DEWR that directly affects individuals is the recognition of trade qualifications as part of the migration process. The Recognising differences case study illustrates the importance in such a program of tailoring procedures and processes to meet the needs of a diverse client base.
In 2004–05, we received 35 complaints about the Department of Transport and Regional Services (DOTARS), compared to 104 in 2003–04. This was a decrease of 66%, and brings complaint numbers back to the level in earlier years, which was 40 complaints in 2001–02 and 49 complaints in 2002–03. The significant increase in complaints in 2003–04 was due to numerous complaints about import approvals not being granted for vehicles already physically landed in Australia. A Full Federal Court looked at the issue and held that import approval could be granted under existing legislation: Minister for Transport and Regional Services v Marra  FCAFC 294.
We continued a review into the complaint-handling mechanisms employed by DOTARS. During the 2004–05, the department developed new complaint procedures within its Vehicle Standards Safety Branch and initiated a review of internal complaint-handling procedures in other areas.
A complaint we investigated about the Department of the Treasury (To build or not to build? case study) illustrated the importance of an agency paying close attention to the statutory provisions being administered. The case also illustrated, for members of the public, that a change in their circumstances does not necessarily mean they will be released from obligations they have entered into.
The Cape Jaffa Lighthouse platform case study, on a complaint about the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, provides a window into the diverse nature and complexity of complaints handled by the office.
Agency client service charters inform the public of the service standards they can expect from agencies. It is to be expected that members of the public will rely on an agency's charter in their dealings with the agency. It is therefore important that a charter should accurately reflect the service the agency is required to provide, or aims to provide. The All or any? case study illustrates a problem that can arise when charter wording is not accurate.
The Ombudsman receives a small number of complaints each year about the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), and some of these complaints throw up challenging issues of law and administration.
In one such case, the Ombudsman raised with ASIC whether it should develop public guidelines on what constitutes 'the public interest', for the purposes of ASIC bringing civil recovery proceedings under s 50 of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001. This arose from a complaint to the Ombudsman from a member of parliament, querying the reasons given by ASIC to a constituent for not commencing proceedings under s 50. The Ombudsman did not find error in ASIC's decision, but pointed to the role that internal agency guidelines can play in promoting clarity and consistency in the administration of indeterminate statutory phrases.
Another ASIC complaint handled during the year drew attention to an instance in which legislative requirements were not being fully met in the discharge of an ASIC supervisory function. As the Unclaimed monies case study shows, we can be useful in bringing to the attention of government agencies the failure of organisations, over which they have a supervisory function, to comply with legislative requirements.