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Tuesday, 23 August 1983
Page: 39


Mr BRUMBY(5.23) —I also rise to speak in support of the two Bills before the House, the Ombudsman Amendment Bill and the Ombudsman (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill of 1983. As has been noted the major Bill has two main purposes : First, to create within the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman a statutory office of Defence Force Ombudsman and, secondly, to make certain other amendments to the Ombudsman Act of 1976 in the light of the review by the Administrative Review Council. The minor Bill makes certain amendments to the Complaints (Australian Federal Police) Act 1981 and also, of course, complements the provisions of the major Act. Originally, legislation to establish the office of Ombudsman was an initiative of the Whitlam Labor Government, carried forward by the succeeding government and finally coming into operation in 1977. That bipartisan approach to ombudsman legislation is obviously essential, and that same approach is evident in the current amendments. A very significant aspect of the legislation before the House is the insertion of a new Part IIA under clause 20 of the amendment Bill which deals with the establishment, functions, powers and duties of the Defence Force Ombudsman, and it is that aspect of the legislation before us on which I propose to concentrate my remarks.

A Bill providing for the appointment of the Defence Force Ombudsman was first passed in the House of Representatives in 1975. It was introduced into the Senate but lapsed on the dissolution of Parliament in November 1975. Legislation to amend the Act was again introduced into Parliament in September last year but also lapsed with the dissolution of Parliament in February of this year. Between 1976 and the present the office of Defence Force Ombudsman has operated on an interim basis under an executive director authorised by the Minister for Defence . The creation of the Office of Defence Force Ombudsman will significantly improve the conditions of employment of members of the Services and their families. Members of the defence services do not have the opportunity of utilising the normal external grievance mechanisms which are found in civilian employment, and their relationships with their employer often extend into many aspects of their working and private lives.

With certain reasonable exclusions, particularly those relating to disciplinary procedures and the granting or refusal of honours and awards, as outlined in section 19 (c) of the principal Act, the Defence Force Ombudsman will provide an independent statutory avenue for the consideration and review of all service related grievances. There are two significant defence service establishments operating within my electorate of Bendigo: Puckapunyal, near Seymour, is the base for Australia's major armoured and transport corps. The Army base makes not only a substantial contribution to Australia's defence requirements but also a notable contribution to the economy and community of Seymour. More than 2,000 personnel are directly employed at Puckapunyal, with some 800 families living in married quarters at or around the base. Honourable members would also be pleased to hear that work on the $14m armoured centre redevelopment project, which was commenced early this financial year, is progressing very smoothly and is creating very valauable work opportunities for local contractors in the Seymour area. Bendigo is home to the Army survey regiment unit based at the historic Fortuna site. Some 300 Service personnel are directly employed at Fortuna, and when families are taken into account more than 500 people in Bendigo are directly or indirectly dependent on the regiment for their livelihood. It goes without saying that the survey regiment unit also makes a very sigificant contribution to the economy and the community of Bendigo and its surrounds.

Given that the Defence Force Ombudsman's function will be to investigate, either on the basis of a complaint being made or on his own initiative, administrative actions related to or arising from a person's service in the defence forces, it is clear that this initiative will have significant benefits for people within my electorate. Importantly, also in this legislation, other persons such as the dependants of Service personnel will also be able to lodge complaints if they are affected by actions within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. So within my electorate of Bendigo some 2,300 service personnel and their dependants will now have access to an independent and statutory Defence Force Ombudsman. I should add that review by the Ombudsman will complement rather than compete with the existing internal redress procedures.

The Bill requires that serving members will normally have to exhaust the redress system before taking a matter to the Defence Force Ombudsman. This is a very sensible approach which will allow commanders to learn of grievances of servicemen and women and to have the first opportunity to remedy them. Additionally, making a complaint to the Defence Force Ombudsman after exhausting the usual internal procedures will not be seen as undermining the normal command structure. During 1982 the interim office of the Defence Force Ombudsman received 122 new complaints compared with 165 in the same period in 1981. An analysis of the complaints received during 1982 shows that administrative decisions concerning pay, allowances and conditions of service were the major source of concern closely followed by complaints related to discharge from the defence forces. Other significant sources of complaints related to transfers, postings and promotions and to the other area of compensation.

The following three cases are typical of complaints which presently fall and will fall within the jurisdiction of the new office of Defence Force Ombudsman. Case one, as an example, concerns a soldier who is discharged on medical grounds and complains to the DFO's Office. The DFO examines the administrative procedures adopted by the Army to determine whether the discharge was lawful and in accordance with policy. Case two is the matter of an airman who is discharged following conviction in a civil court for a serious offence and complains about that discharge. The Defence Force Ombudsman examines relative files, obtains a report from the Royal Australian Air Force officer and determines whether the discharge was administratively in order. In case three a sailor complains that he was not paid temporary accommodation allowance when he was posted. The DFO would examine his file and determine whether there was an entitlement to that allowance.

As I have indicated earlier in my remarks, the creation of this statutory office of Defence Force Ombudsman will provide a very important advance in the conditions of employment for Service members. Amendments within the Bill strengthen and widen the Ombudsman's role in line with developing practice and provide for greater discretion and flexibility by modifying formal, procedural requirements in the Act. There is no question that this initiative is a genuine advance in the conditions of service for members of the defence forces. The establishment of this office does not mean that the Services are badly administered but rather, there will now be a process for a completely independent and statutory investigation of complaints. I know that the initiative will be welcomed by Service personnel throughout my electorate and, in terms of this specific initiative to establish the office of Defence Force Ombudsman, it is fitting that this provision, first introduced by the Whitlam Labor Government, will now finally be implemented by the Hawke Labor Government. I commend both Bills to the House.