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Estimates: Ombudsman

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 22 May 2012

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 22 May 2012

Commonwealth Ombudsman

  • Senator Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Leader of the Government in the Senate
  • Ms Alison Larkins, Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: There is a table of page 178 of the budget papers of the PM&C statement, at 1.15, which shows resources of the Ombudsman will fall from $27.3 million to $20.8 million. I understand that there is also about $6 million being carried over, but it is clearly a budget cut. I want to explore this with you. Considering it is a relatively small department it sounds like a significant cut. Could you give us details of the budget cut? Is there any more information you can share?

Ms Larkins: Technically, it is not a cut. It is the combined effect of the efficiency dividend and two terminating programs. One of those programs is some of the funding we received for Christmas Island oversight and the other is the terminating program in relation to our oversight role of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which will end at June 30 this year.

Senator RHIANNON: Does it also show that your staffing levels will drop from 159 to 136? That comes through as a 14 per cent cut in jobs for the ombudsman's office. Are you linking that to the point that you have just made that, in fact, you were expecting it?

Ms Larkins: You ask whether I was expecting it to reduce?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Ms Larkins: It has been foreshadowed in the PBS over a number of years that our funding would decrease in the manner that is shown in the current PBS, so it is consistent with what we understood to be happening in the out years.

Senator RHIANNON: But a 14 per cent cut in staff is significant. It will clearly reduce the range of work that you can do and the level of detail. Is that how you would describe it?

Ms Larkins: We are in the position where certainly the workload is increasing and our resourcing is decreasing, so we are in the middle of going through a planning process to establish how to manage our work and how to focus on the things that are important and for which we have a statutory responsibility to deliver within the funding envelope that we have, not only next year but also the following year.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you expand on that? What areas will be understaffed and what services will suffer?

Ms Larkins: I cannot expand on that at the moment because we are going through quite a detailed planning process in the office and we have not yet made those decisions. I can tell you that in general there are a number of areas of our workload where demand is increasing. For example, it will be a record concurrent year for us this year. Last year, we had under 20,000 complaints; this year we will top 23,000. Interestingly, that seems to be happening across Australia so all parliamentary ombudsmen and industry ombudsmen are noting an increase in complaining among the population. There is some speculation as to why that is, but complaints are going up. There are other areas such as our two-year detention reviews where we have many more people in detention for that period and so we have more workload. Yes, we are in the position of trying to work out how we are going to deliver services within the budget but I am not at the point yet when I determine where we will make those changes.

Senator RHIANNON: When will that be determined and will it be made public?

Ms Larkins: We hope to be in a position early in the new financial year to give more detailed advice about how we are going to manage within the budget that we have. I have not given any thought as to whether it will be made public.

Senator RHIANNON: You will?

Ms Larkins: I will, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: To sum up, 23,000 complaints is an enormous number, your budget has been cut and there is a 14 per cent reduction in staff. It sounds like many or some of the complaints will not be handled.

Ms Larkins: I should correct you. There are two issues. Our average staffing level is reducing from 149 this year to 136. One of the issues—you are quoting a higher number—basically came because late in 2010 we overstaffed in the office, which meant we began this year with a lot more staff than we could afford within the envelope that we had been given in our budget. Yes, our staff is reducing but partly that is because we put on more staff when we could afford it.

Senator RHIANNON: How did that come about?

Ms Larkins: Historically over the three previous years we had quite high levels of turnover. We had a turnover of about 20 per cent, so I think people made the assessment in the office to get ahead of the game and recruit more people than we need because we know turnover is going to be really high. Turnover dropped and we were in that position. We will overspend this year as a result of that.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to move on to the issue of investigation of misconduct overseas. I understand that you have jurisdiction to investigate the Australian Federal Police deployed on overseas missions.

Ms Larkins: That is right.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the process for investigating a complaint against AFP officers in the International Deployment Group?

Ms Larkins: We have two roles. We provide an oversight of AFP's own complaints handling processes. An audit is probably the best way of doing that, where we look on a regular basis at how well the AFP is managing its own complaints. We also do consider some complaints ourselves. The major view that we have is through that auditing of how the AFP manages its own complaints.

Senator RHIANNON: How do you decide on which complaints that you will look at?

Ms Larkins: I will take that on notice. I just want to be completely clear about it.

Senator RHIANNON: What budget and resources do you think the Ombudsman's office would need to properly investigate the AFP's International Deployment Group?

Ms Larkins: I have no concerns about funding for the AFP at the minute.

Senator RHIANNON: You do not have any concerns?

Ms Larkins: No. Again, I am going through a process where we are looking at funding for all of the functions in the office but, certainly, the resources that we have allocated at the moment are absolutely adequate in my view for us to do that oversight function. I should say that the AFP does not receive huge numbers of complaints about AFP members serving overseas. Most of those complaints come from officers of the AFP themselves, so they are officers within the AFP raising issues that go to code-of-conduct type matters.

Senator RHIANNON: Just in March, about six weeks ago, it was reported that 60 complaints were made against members of the AFP International Deployment Group. That sounds like a lot, and some of them were categorised as serious.

Ms Larkins: Sorry, what are you reading from?

Senator RHIANNON: The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 60 complaints were made against members of the AFP's International Deployment Group between 2009 and 2011 and one in three was categorised as serious.

Ms Larkins: I have not got that in front of me. That number of complaints, in our view, is not enormous compared to some of the other areas that we deal with. I do not have any information in front of me to comment on the categorisation.

Senator RHIANNON: Just taking it on the numbers, why do you not regard that as enormous? I think the public would think if 60 police officers overseas were misbehaving, and one in three complaints was serious, that would be a worry.

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, we have had a lot of debate about the presumption of innocence. The information you are using is 60 complaints over three years for a variety of complaints. I think we should be a bit careful about how we categorise it. Maybe you would like to take us through the range of complaints they received.

Ms Larkins: I am not sure where that categorisation has come from, whether those are our figures or some other figures. We distinguish between complaints and findings, or what we do with a complaint. We encourage people to complain and so complaint numbers in themselves are not necessarily an indication.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you agree with former Ombudsman Allan Asher's comments that underresourcing of the Ombudsman's office means the AFP's international missions are left to operate with little real oversight?

Ms Larkins: That is not my view.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you satisfied that there adequate oversight, or could there be some improvement?

Ms Larkins: Obviously, when the previous Ombudsman made those comments we did some investigation in the office. I am confident that we have enough resources to oversight the AFP's deployment overseas.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I am still trying to get some figures and understanding of this. Is it true that the Ombudsman's office has sought information on only one complaint against a member of the International Deployment Group since July 2010?

Ms Larkins: I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: You can take that on notice and also tell me the details of the complaint. If there was only one complaint, why, considering there are other reports of more complaints.

Ms Larkins: Okay.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to move on to the issue about the CSIRO and the Australian Forest Products Association. You would obviously know the background here. Is it important that the CSIRO is impartial, transparent and apolitical?

Senator Chris Evans: I think that is probably a question for me, is it not, as minister for CSIRO? The answer is yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister, that is the response we need.

Senator Chris Evans: Ms Larkins was probably going to have a flash outside the off stump there!

Senator RHIANNON: The CSIRO code of conduct requires it to be politically neutral and to provide impartial advice. Membership of the Australian Forest Products Association appears to align the CSIRO with logging industry lobby groups. Did you establish what the criteria and procedures currently used by CSIRO are for deciding if membership of industry lobby groups like AFPA is appropriate?

Ms Larkins: We received a complaint and the complaint focused on the appropriateness of CSIRO being a member of AFPA. The argument that was put to us was that as AFPA is an industry lobby group that has made submissions that are critical of the Australian government in relation to forestry and environmental policy and research, CSIRO's membership of the organisation implied that it shared its views and that that was inconsistent with its own code of conduct public comment policy and/or research charter. We have had that complaint investigated by a senior officer. The investigation looked at the written complaint and received a response from CSIRO. We are at the stage in the complaint where we have written to the complainant with our preliminary views and invited the complainant to provide us with additional information. It is my understanding that the complainant has sought a review, and we are in the process of making that review.

In terms of the reason underlying the investigation officer's initial decision, the officer argued that the membership of the industry association is consistent with the primary aims of the organisation as set out in its act and that you can draw a relevant distinction between a membership based organisation and its members. Not everything done or stated by a membership based organisation can be attributed to its members. The investigating officer found that this did not mean that CSIRO could completely distance itself from organisations that it joins.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I just clarify: it could not?

Ms Larkins: It cannot distance itself and they noted that the CSIRO had indicated that it would terminate membership of that organisation if it considered that the reputational damage to CSIRO of continuing membership outweighed staying in the organisation. We believe that it is a value judgment for CSIRO and that our role is to work out if there is an appropriate policy framework, whether they have considered the issues and whether the conclusions they reached were reasonably open to it. We found that they were.

Senator RHIANNON: Did your officer consider many other ways that CSIRO could stay in touch with the industry or reap the net working benefit CSIRO states that it is after, like reading the material and requesting briefings?

Ms Larkins: No, we did not. We particularly investigated the complaint that we had.

Senator Chris Evans: I think the broader policy question is one for CSIRO and me as their minister, although you referred to their independence earlier as a statutory authority. But can I just say that this has been discussed at estimates with CSIRO. They are undertaking a review of their memberships. I have discussed this with Dr Megan Clark, the head of CSIRO. She will be responding to that review in coming months and I think will get asked about it again at estimates next week. They are reviewing those practices, if you like, and will respond following that review. I have discussed with her the potential for memberships to have implications for the reputation of CSIRO—and not just in this particular case. She is very aware of that. I think it is important because CSIRO is a great national institution that has very broad based support and we obviously want to maintain that. That review is occurring and is, I think, soon to be completed. Obviously you can question her about that at estimates. But those are the policy issues. Ms Larkins is obviously dealing with the particular complaint. I think in the end it comes down to a policy question, to be frank, for CSIRO about their memberships. We are happy to explore that at estimates again.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for explaining that, Minister.

CHAIR: Could you start wrapping up, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, Chair. Just so I can understand the process, Ms Larkins, in terms of how the Ombudsman's office handled this, did you establish if CSIRO was a member of other industry organisations and, if so, what they are?

Ms Larkins: I would have to take that on notice. I do not have that information with me.

Senator Chris Evans: They are members of a lot of organisations.

Senator RHIANNON: Did they pay $10,000 in membership?

Senator Chris Evans: I suspect that varies, but they have given evidence before that they participate in a lot of groups in the community. That has been given as evidence by CSIRO, but I am not sure that would be the sort of thing that Ms Larkins would have covered off in dealing with the complaint.

Ms Larkins: I do not know.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, could you take on notice what other organisations CSIRO are members of and how much they paid to join those organisations?

Senator Chris Evans: I am happy for you to ask me that next week and we can take it notice then.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay.

Senator Chris Evans: Formally, that does not work here, but I am happy to get you the information.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. We will come back to that one. Ms Larkins, would you hold the same view of the CSIRO joining groups such as Greenpeace or the Wilderness Society, as was concluded with regard to the Australian Forest Products Association?

Ms Larkins: I just do not have a judgment on that. I was not the investigating officer in this case and I have not turned my mind to it.

Senator Chris Evans: It would not be a judgment for the investigating officer anyway.

Ms Larkins: Yes—indeed. Thank you!

Senator Chris Evans: That is a value judgment—and one for the policy of the CSIRO.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

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