Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 12 February 1986
Page: 173


Senator MISSEN —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. I refer to the statements made by the former Ombudsman, Professor Richardson, as reported in the Age of 22 January 1986, relating to the failure of the Government to provide adequate funding or staff to enable the Ombudsman to carry out his obligations imposed on him by Parliament under the 1983 amending Freedom of Information Bill. Firstly, is it correct that the Government has failed to supply the funding and staff, as alleged? Secondly, is this part of Senator Walsh's campaign to diminish the strength and usage of the FOI Act? Thirdly, what action is the Government taking to remedy the situation? Fourthly, is it a fact that Professor Richardson's period of office terminated more than two months ago and that he has not yet been replaced? Fifthly, was this vacancy at all times known to the Government and why has the replacement not been made immediately? Sixthly, is this a further part of Senator Walsh's campaign to blunt the effectiveness of the Ombudsman in performing his FOI role?


The PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's question is getting a bit long.


Senator MISSEN —There are three more matters; they are all related and the Minister has had notice of them. Seventhly, has the Attorney-General's report on FOI performance for 1984-85 been unavailable to the general public since its tabling late in the previous session? Eighthly, has this limited the opportunities of those preparing submissions to the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs for its three-year review of the FOI Act? Lastly, what involvement has Senator Walsh had in causing this deficiency?


Senator BUTTON —Fortunately, I have had notice of Senator Missen's question and I have an answer. The answer, if I might horrify the Senate, is much longer than the question. Perhaps I can summarise it and seek leave to have it incorporated in Hansard. The first part of the question related to the funding and staff of the Ombudsman's office. That was a crucial part of the question. The answer is that the Ombudsman's office has had its average operating staff level maintained when many government departments and authorities have had their staffing levels reduced during the present fiscal restraints. The Ombudsman's office staffing level over the past four years has been 52 in 1981-82, 55 in 1982-83, 60 in 1983-84 and 64 in 1984-85. The 1985-86 level is 68, although this includes for the first time the four statutory positions.

I am asked in a number of parts of Senator Missen's question whether this is all part of some campaign by Senator Walsh. There is no such campaign and the answer to those parts of the question is no. Senator Walsh has views about these matters, as we all have, but they cannot be described effectively as a campaign. I hope Senator Walsh is not offended by that description.

It is true that Professor Richardson's period of office terminated two months ago; the vacancy has at all times been known to the Government, and it will be filled in due course. It has been filled in an acting capacity by an experienced Deputy Ombudsman. The Attorney-General's report on freedom of information performance has not been made available yet because of printing problems experienced by the Australian Government Publishing Service. However, the report has been cleared by the Attorney-General's Department for sale in late January; I think this is an old answer. I understand it is now available for purchase. As to the other parts of Senator Missen's question I seek leave to have the answers incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The answers read as follows-

1. ``Is it correct that the Government has failed to supply the funding and staff as alleged?''

The Ombudsman's office has had its average operating staffing level (AOSL) maintained when many Government departments and authorities have had their staffing level reduced during the present fiscal restraint. The Ombudsman's office staffing levels over the past four years have been: 52 in 1981-82, 55 in 1982-83, 60 in 1983-84 and 64 in 1984-85. The 1985-86 level is 68, although this includes for the first time, the four statutory positions which means, effectively, no change in 1985-86 compared with 1984-85.

2. ``Is this part of Senator Walsh's campaign to diminish the strength and usage of the FOI Act?''

There is no such campaign.

3. ``What action is the Government taking to remedy the situation?''

The staffing of the Ombudsman's Office is constantly under review to meet needs as required as is the case with all Commonwealth departments and agencies.

The Government notes that the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs is undertaking a review of the FOI Act this year. The review will include the question of costs and efficiency in the administration of the Act and the weighing of future benefits against future costs.

4. ``Is it a fact that Professor Richardson's period of office terminated more than two months ago and that he has not yet been replaced?''

Yes.

5. ``Was this vacancy at all times known to the Government and why has the replacement not been made immediately?''

Yes. The Government is aware of the vacancy and has taken steps, through advertising and other avenues, to ensure that a wide range of people are considered. It is important that the person selected possess the personal and administrative qualities appropriate to meet the Government's wish that the appointment be of the highest calibre. There has been no disruption to the role of the Ombudsman because the position has been filled continuously by an experienced Deputy Ombudsman, Air Vice Marshal Jordan, who has acted as Ombudsman since the retirement of Professor Richardson.

6. ``Is this a further part of Senator Walsh's campaign to blunt the effectiveness of the Ombudsman in performing his FOI role?''

There has been no such campaign either by Senator Walsh or by the Government.

7. ``Has the Attorney-General's report on FOI performance for 1984-85 been unavailable to the general public since its tabling late in the previous session?''

Yes. Unavoidable printing problems have been experienced by the Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS). However, Attorney-General's Department cleared the FOI Report with AGPS for sale in late January. It is now available for purchase.

8. ``Has this limited the opportunities of those preparing submissions to the Senate constitutional and legal affairs committee for its three-year review of the FOI Act?''

The Senate Standing Committee advertised widely in December, inviting written submissions from all interested members of the public. Anyone wishing to lodge a submission has the opportunity to do so. If any person feels that he or she has been disadvantaged in any way in this context, I am sure the Secretary to the Standing Committee would view sympathetically any application to lodge a late submission.

9. ``What involvement has Senator Walsh played in causing this deficiency?''

In line with answers to questions 2 and 6 above, Senator Walsh has had no involvement in this matter.