Part 2—Overview of the Office
Roles and functions
The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is a non-corporate Commonwealth entity established under the Ombudsman Act 1976 (the Act). The Commonwealth Ombudsman has the following major functions:
- complaint management
- oversight of Commonwealth agencies
- oversight of prescribed private sector organisations
- oversight of the Commonwealth Public Interest Disclosure Scheme
- responding to reports of serious abuse within Defence
- Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) Coordinator and NPM for places of detention under the control of the Commonwealth
- inspections of certain covert and intrusive powers by law enforcement bodies.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has jurisdiction over all Commonwealth entities and their contracted service providers, subject to some specific statutory exclusions (i.e. the Australian Taxation Office and intelligence agencies).
The Office also oversees the activities of a range of private sector organisations, including:
- private health insurers
- postal operators that elect to register with the Postal Industry Ombudsman scheme
- some providers of education services.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has the following separate titles that describe specific functions and powers:
- Defence Force Ombudsman (DFO)—to investigate actions arising from the service of a member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The DFO can investigate complaints from current or former members of the ADF about administrative matters relating to Defence agencies. Since 1 December 2016, the DFO's functions were expanded to provide an independent mechanism to report serious abuse in Defence.
- Postal Industry Ombudsman (PIO)—to investigate complaints about Australia Post and private postal operators that elect to register with the Postal Industry Ombudsman Scheme.
- Overseas Students Ombudsman (OSO)—to investigate complaints from overseas students about private education providers in Australia. The OSO also gives private registered providers advice and training on best practice for handling complaints from overseas students.
- Private Health Insurance Ombudsman (PHIO)—to protect the interests of private health insurance consumers. This is done in a number of ways, including dispute resolution, identifying systemic issues within the practices of private health funds and providing advice and recommendations to government and industry. The PHIO can deal with complaints from health fund members, health funds, private hospitals or medical practitioners. However, complaints must be about a health insurance arrangement. PHIO also manages PrivateHealth.gov.au, Australia’s leading source of independent information about private health insurance for consumers.
- VET Student Loans Ombudsman (VSLO)—to investigate complaints from students studying a diploma, advanced diploma, graduate certificate or graduate diploma course and who have accessed the VET FEE-HELP or the VET Student Loans programs to cover the cost of their studies in full or in part. The VSLO also provides vocational education and training providers with advice and training on best practice complaint handling.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also the ACT Ombudsman. The ACT Ombudsman's role is delivered by the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman under an agreement between the ACT Government and the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can deal with most complaints involving the administrative actions of the ACT government agencies and police. The legislation governing the Ombudsman authorises us to investigate complaints about or issues related to:
- ACT government agencies
- ACT Policing
- Reportable Conduct Scheme
- Freedom of Information
- Public Interest Disclosures
Additional information is available in the ACT Ombudsman Annual Report 2019–20.
Table 1—Accountable Authority
Period as the Accountable Authority
Date of Commencement
Date of Cessation
Michael Manthorpe PSM
8 May 2017
The Office is located in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.
The Ombudsman and Deputy Ombudsman are statutory officers appointed under the Ombudsman Act 1976. Employees are engaged pursuant to the Public Service Act 1999. The Senior Assistant Ombudsman and Chief Operating Officer are Senior Executive Service Band 1 employees. The Executive and Senior Management structure is provided at Figure 1.
Figure 1—Executive and Senior Management structure as at 30 June 2020
Senior leadership group
Michael Manthorpe PSM was appointed by the Australian Government to the role of Commonwealth Ombudsman for a five year term commencing on 8 May 2017. He is the 10th Commonwealth Ombudsman since the Office's inception in 1977.
Prior to his appointment, Michael was a career Australian public servant. He is a generalist, who studied journalism and history at the University of Queensland in the 1980s, and worked for different governments on a variety of public policy and program issues over the years. Most recently, he held Deputy Secretary level positions at the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection, where he was responsible for the global delivery of Australia's visa, citizenship and refugee programs. For 25 years he worked in the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations portfolios.
He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2010 for his leadership of the government's handling of the insolvency of ABC Learning childcare centres.
Michael is on the executive of the Australia New Zealand Ombudsman Association (ANZOA), and is a Deputy President and councillor of the ACT Branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA).
Acting Deputy Ombudsman
Paul Pfitzner joined the Office in September 2016. He has held various senior executive roles across the Office, including delivering the program responding to reports of serious abuse within Defence, executive responsibility for the work of the ACT Ombudsman, leading the Office’s complaints management and education functions and a period as the Chief Operating Officer. He has been acting as the Deputy Ombudsman since February 2020.
Paul is a lawyer by training and has been in the Commonwealth public service since 2003. Prior to joining the Office, he held senior roles in the Attorney-General's Department in legal policy relating to human rights, legal services, national security and criminal justice.
Senior Assistant Ombudsman, Strategy Branch
Fiona Sawyers joined the Office in July 2017. Prior to joining the Office, Fiona held leadership roles in a variety of Commonwealth agencies and departments, including most recently in Indigenous education at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Fiona has over 20 years' experience in social policy and program management, primarily at the Department of Social Services and its predecessors, where she has worked on welfare and family payments, disability policy and housing support. Fiona's experience spans program management and implementation, research and evaluation and policy development.
Fiona has lived and worked in rural NSW and in Canberra, and studied English literature and politics at the University of New South Wales.
Senior Assistant Ombudsman, Program Delivery Branch
Louise joined the Office in July 2016 and has held various senior leadership roles across the Office, including leading the complaints management and education functions and the former social services, Indigenous and disability functions. Her public service career has involved a variety of leadership roles, conducting investigations, compliance monitoring and dispute resolution in agencies such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria, the Queensland Justice and Attorney-General's Dispute Resolution Centres and the Family Court of Australia. Prior to this, Louise spent seven years as an officer in the Australian Army and served on operations in East Timor. Louise is a lawyer and mediator by training.
Senior Assistant Ombudsman, Complaints Management and Education Branch
Julia Taylor joined the Office in 2019. She is currently responsible for the Office’s complaints management and education functions and prior to joining the branch Julia held leadership roles across a range of areas within the strategy function of the Office.
Julia has extensive experience relating to strategic change and project management, business process design, ICT and Telecommunications, service delivery and workload/workforce management. Julia’s leadership experience has been gained through working in a range of roles, including the private sector, prior to joining the Australian Taxation Office, Services Australia, Department of Home Affairs and now the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office. Julia has a diploma in professional and executive coaching and is a mentor and coach for people both within and external to the public service.
Senior Assistant Ombudsman, Assurance Branch
Emma Cotterill joined the Office in 2004. She is currently responsible for the Office’s oversight of law enforcement and integrity agencies’ use of certain covert, coercive and intrusive powers, as well as the Office’s role as the National Preventive Mechanism for places of detention under the control of the Commonwealth, under the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.
Before joining the Assurance Branch, Emma held leadership roles in the Office’s Strategy branch, specialising in social services, Indigenous service delivery and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Senior Assistant Ombudsman, Industry Branch
Dermot Walsh joined the Office in 2014 and has held various leadership roles across the Office, including responsibility for: finance, governance and property, corporate services and his current role leading the private health insurance, postal industry, overseas students and VET student loans ombudsman functions.
Before joining the Office, Dermot held leadership roles in both the Commonwealth and ACT Public Service, in a diverse range of organisations including: the ACT Land Development Agency, the ACT Economic Development Directorate, Comcare, the National Gallery of Australia, the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Dermot has a Bachelor of Commerce, is a Fellow member of CPA Australia and a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Acting Chief Operating Officer, Corporate Branch
Lisa Collett has worked for the Commonwealth Public Service for over 20 years in a variety of program, policy and business improvement roles across a number of public service agencies. Before joining the Corporate Branch, Lisa held leadership roles in the Office’s Complaint Management and Education Branch.
As well as being admitted as a legal practitioner in the Australian Capital Territory, Lisa holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Australian New Zealand School of Management and a Bachelor of Social Sciences.