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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
17/09/2015
Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories

GLENN, Mr Richard, Deputy Ombudsman, Commonwealth Ombudsman

NEAVE, Mr Colin, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Commonwealth Ombudsman

PASSLOW, Mr Simon, Assistant Director, Commonwealth Ombudsman

Committee met at 10:07

CHAIR ( Mr Simpkins ): I declare open this public meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for its inquiry into governance in the Indian Ocean Territories. Under the inquiry's terms of reference, the committee has been asked to consider: the role of the administrator; consultation mechanisms and best practice for engagement with small and remote communities; local government's role; and opportunities to strengthen and diversify the economy.

The committee has held a series of hearings on the Indian Ocean Territories in Perth and Canberra. A range of issues have been raised. Some are clearly longstanding issues; others are more recent. The last three hearings have focused on the prospects for developing tourism and other industries, with a focus on the need for access to land and improved land management and planning processes for greater investor confidence.

Today we will hear from a former Christmas Island resident who has been researching the potential for the Chinese outbound tourism market to contribute to the tourism industry of the Indian Ocean Territories. Before that, we will talk to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the outcomes of community complaints clinics they conducted on Christmas Island.

I now welcome officers from the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. Do you wish to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions?

Mr Neave : Yes, thank you. To set the context, as you know, we investigate complaints from members of the public about the administrative actions of Commonwealth government agencies. We use complaints to encourage agencies to improve their administration. The submission we made is based on observations from and investigations of complaints made to our office about the administration of the Indian Ocean Territories, IOT, by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, DIRD.

The crux of complaints to my office in recent years suggest that IOT residents are expecting a level of consultation on administrative decisions taken by DIRD that that department is unable to satisfy. It may be that that department is not strictly obliged to consult with residents on all matters. But the department, as a public entity, is obliged to respond to complaints about its decisions on the levels of consultation made in respect of decisions it makes.

The department is being asked, we think, to think federally but to act municipally when it comes to IOT residents. When consultation does occur, the practice appears to be ad hoc and variable. At our suggestion, the department has agreed to consider addressing this issue. We suggested that there should be a protocol developed which sets out the department's obligation and commitment to consult. Such a protocol should reduce the confusion and frustration of the community which, in turn, is contributed to by the fact that there are shires—Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island—that have certain responsibilities and there is that department which has certain responsibilities. Possibly the department engages departments of the Western Australian government to produce various results as well. So you have the potential for confusion there. On that note, thank you for the opportunity to make an opening statement.

CHAIR: When was the last time that you or your team were over there?

Mr Neave : I think Richard can help answer that.

Mr Glenn : I think the last time the team was over there to have a complaints clinic was in March 2014.

Mr Passlow : That is right.

CHAIR: Has there been contemplation of the team going again? Has there been any request from the complainants from last time?

Mr Glenn : No, we have not received any requests from complainants. In fact, we have not had any complaints from the IOT in the last financial year. We have Christmas Island on a regular schedule for visits. We do not have a particular visit planned as yet, no.

CHAIR: Why do you think there have not been any complaints in the last financial year? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mr Glenn : It is really very hard to say. There is obviously an issue of immediacy. If you are on-island, people who are happier to have a conversation directly than using other methods will approach you. Over the last 10 years, the complaint numbers have been relatively low. It is not unusual for a year to pass without there being a complaint and then for a few to trickle through subsequently.

CHAIR: Do you think there is a level of awareness on the island that they still have this option? I am just wondering if there is knowledge that people can make a complaint.

Mr Glenn : There is always more that can be done to ensure that people have an awareness of the options they have. I think there is also an awareness on-island that the Ombudsman Western Australia, who play a role in relation to the Western Australian agencies that deliver services on-island, is able to be approached. I suspect they are receiving more complaints than we are because of the nature of the services that are delivered.

CHAIR: Sure.

Mr Neave : And I think it is also fair to say that there is a very close working relationship between the Western Australian Ombudsman's office and our office, so, if the Western Australian Ombudsman received something that was really something that we could deal with, that would be referred to us. Generally speaking, if there were a need for us, if it came to the attention of the Western Australian Ombudsman, we would hear about it.

CHAIR: Have you got visibility of what sorts of complaints they have received or the numbers they have received? The service delivery arrangements are a source of quite a bit of contention.

Mr Neave : We do not have any details of the sorts of complaints that the Western Australian Ombudsman receives—unless, Simon, you have any knowledge of that?

Mr Passlow : No, we do not. We know the cases that we have referred to them. We know the substance of those because they were made to us in the first instance and we referred them. That was back from those previous clinics.

CHAIR: This is my last question before I hand it to other members of the committee. With regard to the complaints that you have fielded, I think it says that there were 17 complaints at the last session or the last two sessions when you were over there. Was that it, or were there others that might have been complaints about state services or even shire issues as well?

Mr Glenn : Of those 17 complaints, a number were actually on the same issue, so it is not necessarily 17 discrete issues. The bulk of them related to service delivery by Western Australian agencies, and there was really only one that we focused on, which was about consultation arrangements and responsiveness by DIRD in relation to issues that had been raised with them by the community.

Mr SNOWDON: In your submission you talk about the protocol which they said they would consider. Do you know if they have actually introduced such a protocol?

Mr Neave : No, we do not think they have.

Mr SNOWDON: I am sure they have not.

Mr Neave : And there has not been any further consultation with us. We would normally expect, if the protocol were being developed, that they might consult with us further on the content.

Mr SNOWDON: About what it might entertain?

Mr Neave : That is right, because we are there to assist in those sorts of circumstances. But, you see, our general approach when we have a complaint or do a report is that sometimes we will follow up on the issue, if it is something that we would normally follow up on. For example, if we made a report about a series of major changes to the way in which the immigration portfolio was being administered, we would follow that through. But, to be frank, we do not often follow up individual complaints just to make sure that what we suggested should be done—

Mr SNOWDON: No.

Mr Neave : It is certainly something that we are mindful of, but it is not something that we do automatically.

Mr SNOWDON: If it is any satisfaction, you need to know that your observations about consultation have been reinforced on numerous occasions in this committee by island residents. Chair, maybe now is not the time, but I suggest that you might ask the secretary to write to the department about the protocol and ask them what was stated.

Secretary: I have the impression we already have, but I will double-check.

Mr SNOWDON: Have we? But we have not got a response, have we?

Secretary: No, we have not got a response. Actually, it was part of the questions on notice that we sent them the other day—

Mr SNOWDON: All right.

CHAIR: Okay. We will add two on with it.

Mr Neave : I think we would be happy to be consulted on the protocol as well because we do know a bit about this sort of thing, in our office, so, if we can help in that way, of course we are always happy to do that.

Mr SNOWDON: One of the issues which this committee has been talking about is the governance structure itself and the role of the administrator vis-a-vis the department and that relationship. One of the things that this protocol may be having difficulty with is working out what their relationship should be, because there is a very strong view, which has evolved over time, that the administrator position has been sidelined so that the points of reference for the Commonwealth are agencies that are not necessarily represented on the island and, more importantly, the Commonwealth department is the organisation to which people should talk, as opposed to the administrator, who should be representing the Commonwealth on the island.

Mr Neave : This is an issue that has not come to my attention with great clarity until the last couple of days. But I was just thinking to myself that we have got a state government providing services under contract; maybe with DIRD you have DIRD providing services. You have an administrator on the island and you have a couple of shires; it is a classic case where you need a sort of coordinator-general to bring it together and make sure that the services are provided in a way that satisfies the needs of 2,500-odd people who are in a pretty remote spot.

Mr SNOWDON: It used to be historically that the administrator more or less had that function. It evolved in the nineties. The empire strikes back occasionally; in this case the empire struck back to such an extent that the administrator, being the coordinator, effectively just got flicked. So the department put itself back in the position. I should not say this in a conspiratorial way but I am sure you understand what I am saying; the accretion of time and lack of oversight, for whatever reason—things happen.

Mr Neave : Anyway, that would be the sort of 'based on anecdotal-type evidence' comment that I would make; it seems to scream for some coordination.

Mr SNOWDON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Gallagher, do you have anything?

Senator GALLAGHER: I do not think so. I was going to ask about the protocol. I think Warren has covered the areas.

CHAIR: Okay. When you went over to the island—did any of you go over to the island?

Mr Neave : No.

Mr Glenn : No.

CHAIR: Was there any involvement by the administrator? Did your people sit down with the administrator at any point?

Mr Neave : My recollection is that there were some discussions with the administrator. The administrator, as I understand it, asked our people—who were on the island for other reasons, to do with the detention centre—to conduct a clinic on a couple of occasions, which our people were quite happy to do. So I think it was upon the initiative of the administrator to facilitate that process, yes. I think so.

CHAIR: I do not think I have anything more for you.

Senator GALLAGHER: You do not have any role in the performance management of the areas where DIRD does deliver services, do you—in terms of how well they are measuring the performance of, say, the school or hospital services?

Mr Neave : We would not describe it in those terms. We are really looking at effective and efficient administration, which may stray at times into performance in the sense that you were using that word, but not really. That probably would be a matter which the Auditor-General might be interested in.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes.

CHAIR: I think we are pretty happy with everything that has been covered. Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude this session?

Mr Neave : I do not think so.

CHAIR: We are always interested in any suggestions. I guess we have covered some of those already.

Mr Neave : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: If you have a light-bulb moment, if it goes off any time in the future, get back to us.

CHAIR: We are always happy to hear the opinions of experts. Again: no pressure.

Mr Neave : Thank you. We would be very happy to look at a draft protocol if one was developed by anybody. That is part of our job.

CHAIR: Thank you for attending and giving evidence today. If the committee has any further questions for you, they will be sent in writing through the secretariat.

Mr Neave : Thank you.