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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
22/05/2017
Estimates
PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET PORTFOLIO
Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

[22:47]

CHAIR: I welcome Mr Michael Manthorpe, the newly appointed Commonwealth Ombudsman, and officers of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Congratulations on your appointment, Mr Manthorpe.

Mr Manthorpe : Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Mr Manthorpe, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Manthorpe : No Chair, other than to say it is good to be here in a new role and to appear before this committee for the first time.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Kakoschke-Moore

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: I have some questions in relation to the Defence Force Ombudsman and the reparations scheme announced in the budget. Has the Office of the Defence Force Ombudsman worked with the government on the development of the framework through which these reparation payments will be made?

Mr R Walsh : The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is currently working with agencies related to that to establish eligibility criteria relating to the reparation payment that was discussed in the budget measure.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So the eligibility issues are still being worked through between the offices?

Mr R Walsh : Yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Are you able to rule out cut-off dates applying to any abuse victims coming forward?

Mr R Walsh : That is all the subject of discussion.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: One of the issues with the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce was the two cut-offs being applied to victims—the first in relation to when abuse occurred and the second in relation to the deadline by which it had to be reported. I would strongly caution against any deadlines being applied, but that is something for you to consider. In terms of the framework, that will consider eligibility requirements and the amount of reparation that can be paid?

Mr R Walsh : That is right.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Are you able to give any indication, at this stage, as to what the maximum payments amounts would be under the scheme?

Mr R Walsh : We only have an estimate from the budget measures, which is $19.5 million over four years from 2017-18. Beyond that, no.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Do you know how that amount was arrived at?

Mr R Walsh : No.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Have you sought that information?

Mr R Walsh : No.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Will you?

Mr R Walsh : No.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: In your framing of the eligibility criteria, will you be doing any modelling about how many people you expect to come forward to make claims under the scheme?

Mr R Walsh : Yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Will the results of that modelling be publicly available?

Mr R Walsh : Could I take that on notice, perhaps? It is very early days. I think it would be unfair to speculate.

Mr Manthorpe : And we are working with the other relevant agencies, so we do not want to commit to either an outcome or provision of information that is subject to discussions with them. But we will bear in mind your request.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: That is understood, thank you. Going to the time frame, the budget measure is due to come into effect next financial year, which could mean any time from July until June 2018. What time frame are you working towards in having a framework bedded down in order for these reparation payments to be made?

Mr R Walsh : As soon as possible, but, obviously, delivered during 2017-18—the sooner the better to establish some stability for survivors of abuse who might be coming forward and for those who have made reports since 1 December 2016.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: When is your next scheduled meeting with the Department of Defence? Is that your main point of contact within the government?

Mr R Walsh : The Department of Defence and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are important government stakeholders in this.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: When is your next meeting with them?

Mr R Walsh : There are a range of meetings. It is an ongoing series of discussions.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: But none have been scheduled?

Mr R Walsh : Not that I know of, but it is an ongoing series of discussions.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: How many meetings have you had so far, since the announcement was made?

Mr R Walsh : I would have to take that on notice.

Mr Manthorpe : I can say to you that, even in the two weeks that I have been in my role, there has been a series of discussions. I am not sure about how many meetings, but there is quite urgent work and quite a high priority being given to working through the details of all of this.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: We are keeping an eye on that and perhaps we will revisit it at the next round of estimates in a few months time to see what progress is being made. I want to turn to one of the other functions that you have in your office, and that is accepting reports of abuse within Defence. Last time we were at estimates, your office told me that 51 people had come forward to the Defence Force Ombudsman to make claims that they had been abused in their time in the ADF. Do you have any updated figures for me on that?

Mr R Walsh : Up to 30 April, 96 reports had been formally made to the office in relation to allegations of serious abuse.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: That was 30 April, did you say?

Mr R Walsh : To 30 April, yes—from 1 December to 30 April.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So that is in total?

Mr R Walsh : It is in total, yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So it is an additional 45 people since March. Do you know how many of those 96 are still serving members?

Mr R Walsh : As we understand it, 70 are former members, 18 are serving members and we have eight yet to determine their service status.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Since the announcement of the new reparations scheme, how many people have come forward to your office, either seeking information about the reparations scheme or disclosing allegations of sexual abuse?

Mr R Walsh : We have had numerous inquiries. I think the better statistic is, often, the web page visits. Sometimes, victims of trauma will need to establish confidence about the scheme and to really understand it before they will even make a call. I do know that we have had 68 calls that have been specifically related to further information in relation to making a report, and 21 of those have turned into reports and are counted amongst the 96. Of the web page statistics from 1 December to 30 April, the DFO page had 1,877 unique visits and 2,363 page views. I think you are actually taking us towards the abuse pages. Regarding the abuse reporting, there were 1,224 unique visits and 1,472 page views.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So that is 1,224 unique visits to your page specifically about abuse in Defence?

Mr R Walsh : That is right.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: When people contact your office with an inquiry about the new reparations scheme, what advice is your office giving them? What do you do with those calls?

Mr R Walsh : In relation to the reparations scheme, we have advised that the budget measure has been announced. We advise them that the eligibility criteria are yet to be determined and advice will be provided via the website as soon as that is available to them. But we have indicated, too, that anybody who has made a report since 1 December will not be disadvantaged. Should the eligibility criteria be released at some point in 2017-18, that will then be applied to those who have also come forward who otherwise meet the standard test.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Are you keeping the contact details of the people who have expressed an interest in making the claims so that you can reach out to them once the scheme has been finalised?

Mr R Walsh : In some cases, yes. We have tried to apply a trauma-informed service-delivery model and, as best we can, we try to do no further harm. So, as you will appreciate, individuals who are survivors of trauma sometimes will release information in their own time and in their own way. Some feel they need to retain their identity for a period until they feel confident with the officers' handling and how they might deal with their matter is something we leave entirely to them. In some cases, yes, and in some cases, no.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: If somebody specifically requests to be kept in touch with—

Mr R Walsh : We keep those details, but we would not press.

Senator McALLISTER: I will start by asking about the widely reported breach of the data retention scheme. The AFP have accepted access to journalists' metadata without a warrant. Are you undertaking an investigation into that?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, we are.

Senator McALLISTER: Could you give us an update on the progress of that investigation? In particular, what resources have you allocated? What is the time line for completion?

Mr Manthorpe : We are dedicating as many resources as we need to get it done quickly. We have already conducted an inspection associated with that matter. We did that on 5 May, having been informed of the matter just before it was publicly announced by the AFP in late April. The results of that inspection will be finalised and reported on in accordance with our internal procedures and the TIA Act reporting mechanism. We will provide the AFP with an opportunity to comment on our report before it is provided to the Attorney-General, the Hon. George Brandis. We then envisage that the report will be tabled in the parliament. Due to the secrecy provisions under the TIA Act, I am unable to provide any comment on the content of what we might be doing, but that is the process and we are moving through it quite quickly.

Senator McALLISTER: I think you referred to that mechanism as 'an inspection' followed by a report and that you are mandated to submit that to the Prime Minister—

Mr Manthorpe : To the Attorney-General.

Senator McALLISTER: To the Attorney-General. Is the inspection the only model available to you in responding to an incident of this kind? Or is it one of a number of options?

Mr Manthorpe : I would have to take advice on. I am not sure, but Mr Walsh may be able to help.

Mr R Walsh : It is the cleanest mechanism available under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act to conduct an inspection of that type when a breach has occurred. Ordinarily breaches would be self-disclosed by the AFP, as well as matters that we come up with as part of our records inspection. So this would form part of that usual process. It is an established methodology and it provides a response and a report that goes to the Attorney-General for tabling in parliament.

Senator McALLISTER: Is it correct to understand that separate to this particular investigation you undertake other inspections of records as part of broader oversight function under the act?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, that is right. We do, on a regular basis, have a cycle of inspections that we do in the various agencies.

Senator McALLISTER: But in the context of the investigation this is a targeted inspection—

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

Senator McALLISTER: to consider particular issues associated with the breach?

Mr Manthorpe : That is right because a breach has been identified by the AFP. They disclose that to us, and we proceeded accordingly.

Senator McALLISTER: Turning to the portfolio budget statement, I see that your average staffing level, on page 233, is projected to increase from 180 to 200 in this coming financial year. Is that correct?

Mr Manthorpe : That is correct.

Senator McALLISTER: Is it correct to understand this increase is mainly to fulfil the responsibility that comes with the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission?

Mr Manthorpe : That would be part of it, but it also relates to the other expansions in the ombudsman's office's remit pertaining to Defence, which Mr Walsh was talking about a few minutes ago, the VET students loans arrangements and NDIS, as you mentioned.

Senator McALLISTER: Right, so Defence, VET and NDIS. I know you have received additional funding for the NDIS function. Is that an ongoing increase to your funding?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, there is an increase over the forward estimates for that. It is $1.247 million in 2017-18 and a similar amount in the out years, I think.

Senator McALLISTER: Sorry, $1.217—

Mr Manthorpe : The $1,247,000 is the NDIS quality and safeguards commission establishment element that is being provided to the Ombudsman's office in 2017-18, and there is a similar amount into the out years, I think.

Senator McALLISTER: Is the amount the same, or does it decrease in the out years? I guess I am asking: is there a one-off and a larger amount provided for establishment but then it drops back?

Mr Manthorpe : Given the time, and rather than fossick through papers, we might just take that on notice, if that is alright?

Senator McALLISTER: If you would. You may be able to tell me this now, but on page 236, table 2.1.1, it lists the total expenses for program 1.1. In the current financial year, they are projected to be $35 million, they jump to $40 million and drop back to $26 million in the out years. I wonder if you can explain that kind of volatility in the funding in that line item.

Mr D Walsh : That relates to the funding arrangements for the Defence Force Ombudsman abuse reporting function. Through the budget process, we extended the cost-recovery arrangement in 2017-18 with a view to bring forward an NPP for ongoing funding, or a measure for ongoing funding, through the 2018-19 budget. That is the big drop-off in that year

CHAIR: It being 11 pm, that concludes the committee's hearing for today. I would like to thank the President, ministers and officers who have given evidence to the committee today, and I would also like to thank Hansard and broadcasting for their assistance. I now declare this meeting of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee adjourned until tomorrow when we will continue with the examination of the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio.

Committee adjourned at 11:02