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Tuesday, 23 August 1983
Page: 41


Mr RONALD EDWARDS(5.40) —In light of the bipartisan nature of the discussions so far I would like to make some comments about some of the other provisions in respect of the operation of the Commonwealth Ombudsman which will continue the thrust of what the honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) has said. I think it is quite true that many of us who are in the parliamentary arena recognise that the role of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is very important by way of settling complaints from the public. Those in the public arena at the moment who are listening to this broadcast will recognise that, from time to time, they have complaints that they wish to take up and that we, as members of parliament, offer one of the avenues. I think it is also important to understand that the Ombudsman performs that sort of a role. In fact, the Commonwealth Ombudsman deals with approximately 11,000 complaints a year. It is important to understand, as a member of parliament and as a member of the public, that this form of complaint, inquiry and representation is a very important part of the functioning of government.

The Ombudsman Amendment Bill and the Ombudsman (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, in particular the provisions that relate to the role of Commonwealth Ombudsman, make some changes which we believe are important in terms of the operation of the Ombudsman. One of the changes that are very important is the capacity in the future-under what is now proposed new section 7-for the Ombudsman to take complaints orally. Honourable members, and many people in the community, will understand that if we make a requirement that all complaints must be in writing, those in the community who have come from a background in which written English is a newly acquired skill are automatically disadvantaged. They will be disadvantaged if they have to give all their complaints to the Commonwealth authorities in writing. There has been an amendment which takes recognition of the fact that many in the community will be advantaged by being able to give their complaints orally. Those complaints of course will be translated into the written form later. But we believe that it is important that people give their complaints orally. We think that that will be a very important amendment with respect to the operation of the Ombudsman.

There is another point that is very important and crucial. Those of us who operate in the public arena with the electorate at large will recognise that a lot of the work we do is in the sense of mediating between the complaint of an elector and the role of the Commonwealth authority. That mediation role is, in many ways, the role the Ombudsman plays. He, in fact, offers a court of appeal to which members of the public, who believe themselves to be aggrieved, can go. These Bills strengthen that thrust. There is an intention, which is quite explicit in these Bills, that the whole role of the Ombudsman should be relatively informal. The capacity of the Ombudsman to investigate complaints on an informal basis will be strengthened. That is also very important. One of the things that emerges when we look at the operation of the Commonwealth administration is that it is not always necessary to have a fully formal inquiry into an area of complaint by an elector but rather, more importantly, to investigate on an informal basis whether the complaint may have greater substance.

In essence, there is a thrust in the Ombudsman Amendment Bill to allow for that informal complaint to be widened. It is then within the capacity of the Ombudsman, if he so judges, to make that complaint more formal. I should emphasise that with respect to that matter it is not intended that the power of the Ombudsman be reduced. I think it is important that those who are listening to this broadcast should recognise that there will still be a capacity for the Ombudsman, should he deem it necessary, to investigate a complaint fully on a formal basis using the full range of royal commission-type powers such as examining witnesses on oath and requiring production of documents, et cetera. That will still be there. The changes in the Bill do not affect the availability of these powers.

There is a recognition in this Bill-it comes from the previous Government and is carried through by this Government-that so many of the complaints that do arise with respect to Commonwealth administration do not require the fully formal authority that the Ombudsman possesses. There is an analogy and the analogy is that within the general industrial relations arena the arbitration power, as such, is used rather in the minority and the conciliation and mediation powers are used in the majority. That notion of discussion and resolution of conflict is being used with respect to the role of the Ombudsman. We believe that is a very important matter.

There is another matter which is also important with respect to the operation of the Ombudsman. It is one I would like to address very quickly; that is, the capacity of people to have their complaints dealt with on a confidential basis will be preserved. In particular, there is recognition within the Bill of those in custody who may make a complaint to the Ombudsman. There is a capacity within this Bill for those complaints to be placed within sealed envelopes and to be delivered to the Ombudsman and that further discussions can remain confidential, allowing that the complainant has the capacity therefore to make, in a protected way, complaints against Commonwealth authority. We believe that is also a very important provision.

Another question which obviously comes to mind when we are talking about the role of an ombudsman in investigating Commonwealth operations is: To what extent do secrecy provisions exist? Quite obviously there have to be limits on the questioning capacity in the public arena of Commonwealth authorities. The Bill does provide that if, as a result of deliberations and the advice of the Executive Council, it can be deemed that to provide that information would result in a breach of the deliberations and the authority of the Executive Council, those documents and that advice would not be made public. We are suggesting, in essence, that there is a need to have some secrecy provisions. Those secrecy provisions go to the heart of the role of government; that is, the Executive Council. We are not allowing the cut-off point to be at an earlier stage with respect to protecting Commonwealth administration.

In talking to these matters it seems that there are some important things to bring out. I believe it is important to recognise that this Bill, in essence, carries forward many of the provisions of the previous Government. It is important for the public at large to understand that there is a bipartisanship on this matter. The electorate should understand, in looking at a crucial matter such as this, that both sides of the House are clear on these matters. We are making the area of complaints a far less formal process and thereby giving much greater capacity for members of the public to get across their viewpoint. There is also an emphasis on this mediation role. That is being seen as being a very important role of the Ombudsman. On the question of confidentiality of complaints-the matter I referred to earlier-people, who in special circumstances , may wish their complaints to remain confidential will be able to do so. In the light of those remarks, I commend the Bills to the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.