Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Commonwealth Ombudsman

6:50 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to the Commonwealth Ombudsman's annual report 2011-12, I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

As senators would be aware, the Commonwealth Ombudsman is the first port of call for many Australians who believe that they have been aggrieved by an executive decision. The ombudsman, as we know, is a pillar of our administrative law regime in Australia. Without the Commonwealth Ombudsman, many Australians would not have an opportunity to seek review of an executive decision. Their only option, really, would be to proceed through the Administrative Review Tribunal or through the Federal Court via the ADJR Act. Despite costs orders, the prohibitive cost of litigation means that, without the Commonwealth Ombudsman, review of government actions would simply be out of reach for so many of those people who need it most. This annual report provides some very interesting statistics. Over the past year the number of complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman has increased from 38,919 to 40,009. I acknowledge that this is a double-edged sword because although 40,000 Australians felt aggrieved enough by decisions of the executive government to complain to the Ombudsman, it is heartening that so many Australians are seeking justice through the merits review the Commonwealth Ombudsman provides. On the positive side, the number of complaints that related to correctness, propriety or timeliness of agency decisions or actions was down from 72 per cent to 70 per cent.

But unsurprisingly the agency which tops the list of complaints is Centrelink, then Australia Post, the ATO, child support and immigration round out the top five. Over the last three years the number of complaints about Centrelink to the Commonwealth Ombudsman fell, but in 2011-12 the number of complaints rose. The report identifies accessibility to Centrelink as a common ground for review. The report notes that telephonic communication with Centrelink can be problematic, and many Centrelink recipients had difficulties understanding correspondence from Centrelink. Many of Centrelink's services are migrating online and as a result the Commonwealth Ombudsman notes that age pension recipients and to a lesser extent disability support pension recipients have difficulty accessing these online services.

I am pleased to say that the government has listened to the complaints of those who use Centrelink and has responded. As my colleague Minister Kim Carr said today, the government was aware that the average call wait times this year peaked at an unacceptable 16 minutes. New technology and the deployment of more staff using new methods to respond to phone calls has meant that as of today the average call wait time is down to six minutes and 15 seconds. I also note that Minister Carr informed the Senate in question time today that the call-back service will be extended, allowing more citizens to go about their business while not losing their place in the queue.

There is much work that the Commonwealth Ombudsman does. It is not just a complaints hotline. The Ombudsman serves as an important purpose of following up on individual citizen's cases as well as conducting investigations, producing reports to assist agencies ensure transparency and making submissions to parliamentary inquiries. I think the work of the Commonwealth Ombudsman is critically important. I commend its work and I commend the annual report of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to the Senate.