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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 7772

Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (15:36): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum which relates to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator BOB BROWN: I table the explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated into Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

The Commonwealth Ombudsman plays an essential role in providing independent oversight and safeguards for the community in its dealings with Australian government agencies.

Nearly 38,000 approaches and complaints were received by the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman for assistance during 2009-10. A recent statement by the former Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, cited more than 2,137 'approaches and complaints about immigration matters, a 34 per cent increase on the previous year'. This sheer volume of work directed to the Commonwealth Ombudsman's office, and its capacity to adequately deliver quality complaint-handling services, without the oversight of a parliamentary committee, recently came to light during the Senate estimates process.

Events which resulted in the unfortunate resignation of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Allan Asher, highlighted the necessity to provide the Commonwealth Ombudsman with the same access as the Auditor-General to committee oversight to ensure that future holders of that office can overcome the roadblock on reporting back to parliament on performance.

Reform of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is not a new concept. In 2005, International ombudsman consultant and former Deputy Commonwealth Ombudsman John Wood stressed the need for Australia to follow other 'comparable democracies such as New Zealand, Thailand and the United Kingdom and make the Ombudsman a statutory officer reporting to Parliament, like the Auditor-General. The budget of the Ombudsman's office should be approved by an oversight committee of the Parliament'. Former Commonwealth ombudsman, Philippa Smith, also backed this reform, calling for a parliamentary committee to recommend the appropriate funding for the office.

The Public Accounts and Audit Committee Amendment (Ombudsman) Bill 2011 expands the opportunities for scrutiny and examination of the Ombudsman's reports and work. The Ombudsman Act 1976 provides the Ombudsman power to, from time to time; submit reports to the minister for presentation to the parliament. In order to enhance considerations of the Ombudsman's operations and performance this bill provides an additional avenue for both the Ombudsman and the parliament to put information in the public domain for consideration and scrutiny.

This bill would enable the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts and Audit to consider the operations and resources of the Ombudsman, including funding and staff numbers. The bill grants the Ombudsman powers similar to those currently possessed by the Auditor-General and goes towards establishing a system similar to that currently operating in both New South Wales and New Zealand.

Although this bill does not go far as to make the Ombudsman an officer of the parliament, as many have suggested, it does provide the Commonwealth Ombudsman with an avenue to engage with the parliament, and raise concerns, on a regular basis. However, if there was support to broaden the scope of the Ombudsman's powers, then the Greens would be open to discuss how this could be achieved.

I commend this bill to the Senate.

Senator BOB BROWN: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.