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Tuesday, 25 June 1996
Page: 2099

Senator CHAMARETTE —My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I refer the minister to the govern ment's responses to my questions in relation to Supply Bill (No. 1) as follows:

. . . in real terms the prospective level of funding for the Ombudsman's office . . . will be no less than the level of funding for 1994/95.

I ask: how can the figures quoted be the same real terms funding when they make no allowance for increases in the CPI and take no account of the increased functions and workload of recent years? With a reduction which amounts to $1.5 million between 1995-96 and 1999-2000 and a rise in the numbers of complaints by an average of 11 per cent per annum over the past three years, and 25 per cent in this current year, what does the government expect the Ombudsman's office to do? Which of the alternatives open to the office does the government support: staff reductions, closure of capital city offices, the end of systemic and major projects such as New Burnt Bridge or the Nomad crash investigation, or an increase—to an unacceptable level—in the level of discretion in rejecting referrals?(Time expired)

Senator HILL —In answering those questions let me say that there does not seem to be an attempt to ask them in a consistent dollar value. I take the point you make, Senator Chamarette, but what it is really about is to acknowledge that, regrettably, there must be cuts in the Ombudsman's office, as there are across the range of government expenditure. You know the reason for that as well as I do. Basically, we have inherited an $8,000 million budget deficit, something that the former government was not prepared to tell us about during the election campaign.

We believe it is in the best interests of the economy and, therefore, of all Australians if we address that over the forthcoming two years. So the Ombudsman's office is going to have to suffer some cuts. In fact, the cuts to the Ombudsman's office are less than in some other parts of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I think the figure that has been talked about was about 15 per cent. We think it is important that the Ombudsman be properly funded. The Ombudsman has an important responsibility to the community. There will always be a debate as to what is the adequate funding support to meet that responsibility. All that has been said in this answer is that, if it is a 15 per cent cut, it will equate to about that which was provided to the Ombudsman in the year 1994-95.

So, Senator Chamarette, I take your point. The Ombudsman will have less funding and will have to make priorities, as we are having to do in all areas of government expenditure. In her case, she administers her office and will determine where the areas of greatest need are. That is as it should be. We have full confidence that she will continue to do her job very well.

Senator CHAMARETTE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer which I think explains quite clearly the invidious position of the Ombudsman. I ask the government through the minister: what effect will the restrictions which the cuts will put on the Ombudsman's office have on the accountability of government departments and agencies to the community they serve? What does this say about this government's commitment to accountability, that it is proceeding to cut the only access many people in the community have to redress in cases of accountability and whistleblower complaints?

Senator HILL —It is not the only access. Some constituents actually come to politicians for assistance. In some jurisdictions the Ombudsman is responsible to the politicians. The Ombudsman's function is important. We strongly support it. As I said, she will be able to do less than she would be able to do with greater funding. That is a fact of life. But we have confidence that she will make the right choices in priority and, therefore, service to the general community will not be substantially diminished as a result of these cuts.