The Ombudsman is a publicly-funded official who acts as an independent and neutral intermediary between individuals and governments. Their main role is to investigate complaints and speak for and protect the rights of ordinary citizens, particularly in cases where government agencies or administrators may have overlooked or disregarded these rights. The term ‘ombudsman’ is derived from a Scandinavian word meaning “representative”. The Ombudsman is a relatively new office, appearing in many Western countries during the mid to late 1900s. Today Ombudsmen can be found in dozens of different nations around the world, including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and most European countries. In the United States, several states and government departments also employ independent ombudsmen.
Australia has nine different Ombudsmen, one for the Commonwealth and one for each State and Territory. The office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman was formed in 1976, while most of the States and Territories formed their own in the mid- to late-1970s. The Ombudsman’s role is to receive complaints from the public about their dealings with government departments and subordinate authorities within their jurisdiction. The Ombudsman can also initiate ‘own motion’ investigations where he or she perceives a need to do so. In 2007 the Victorian Ombudsman, George Brouwer (pictured), launched an investigation into VicRoads and its licensing procedures. The Ombudsman’s report, tabled in the Victorian parliament, was scathing, pointing to security breaches such as the fake ID acquired by convicted drug lord and escaped fugitive Tony Mokbel.
Each Ombudsman operates in his or her law-making jurisdiction. The Commonwealth Ombudsman can receive complaints pertaining to the defence forces, the postal service, immigration, welfare, taxation and Federal law enforcement bodies such as the Federal Police. The State Ombudsmen can receive complaints about state government departments, subordinate authorities, public transport, state law enforcement bodies, schools, hospitals and local governments. The Ombudsman cannot investigate the decisions of courts, judges or certain high-ranking government officials. The Ombudsman is a publicly funded position and lodging a complaint is entirely free. Each Ombudsman generally has a pro forma for making complaints, such as a printable form. On receiving a complaint the Ombudsman then decides whether there are grounds for further investigation (some complaints are frivolous or vexatious). Some complaints may be dealt with quickly, through letters and telephone calls; others may take months to investigate.
It is important to note that the Ombudsman has few investigative powers and no authority to change decisions: he or she simply requests information, reviews whether the complainant has been treated fairly and provides a recommendation to the relevant organisation. The Ombudsman can recommend that an apology be given, compensation be offered or a decision be reversed – but he or she cannot order this. In serious matters, however, the Ombudsman may undertake a full investigation of a particular issue and present a report to their relevant parliament, recommending changes to legislation or procedure. The parliament is not bound to follow these recommendations, however the Ombudsman’s reports are also released to the public so there may be some pressure on the parliament to do so. In 2009 a corruption scandal at Melbourne’s Brimbank Council was investigated by the Victorian Ombudsman, who recommended that local councillors be banned from working for MPs as electoral officers or advisors – a recommendation that Premier John Brumby promised to implement.