In memoriam: Norman Geschke, Victorian Ombudsman (1980-1994)

 
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has written the following tribute to her predecessor Norman Gescke, who passed away on 23 July 2018:
 
 
We all strive to make a difference in life, but not too many people can look back on a life quite so well-lived, who helped so many thousands of people, as Charles Norman Geschke, popularly known as Norm.
 
Norman was Victoria’s second Ombudsman, following a distinguished career with the RAAF and six years as Victoria’s first Director of Consumer Affairs. A passion for fairness, and protecting the rights of the vulnerable, were an early hallmark of his work and he occupied the role, dispensing wisdom and justice, for 14 years from 1980 to 1994. I have often reflected that one of the unofficial functions of the Ombudsman is to get under the skin of the government of the day, whoever that government is, and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the government subsequently brought in legislation to limit the Ombudsman’s term to ten years.
 
What comes across from his many official reports is how much he cared about people, the man or woman in the street, sometimes literally. In his last report to Parliament he described saving the wooden kiosk at Clifton Hill station, so that the lady kiosk operator did not have to sell her wares from a portable trolley at 6 am in the Melbourne winter. In an earlier report he gave advice about lost TAB tickets: “the golden rules of punting are check your tickets for correctness and don’t lose them”. No problem with the bureaucracy was too small, no bureaucrat too mighty, for the Ombudsman’s attention.
 
My personal favourite from his long and illustrious tenure as Victoria’s Ombudsman was his quest, documented over two annual reports, for the fair provision of toilets for women at theatres, concert halls, and sporting venues – which he described as “Sexual discrimination of an inconvenient kind”.
 
He first describes how he told the Department of Planning and Urban Growth that he was considering a formal investigation into the issue, to which they responded that they had “decided to establish a research project to investigate the matter thoroughly.”
 
His response to this was classic Norman. “Why it now needs a survey to determine a situation that has been apparent to at least half the population for so long, is beyond my comprehension… It is a well known fact that a man and woman’s time behind the bushes is different…. Perhaps the researchers could take the simple way out and ask the thousands of women who attended the Australia Day fireworks at Albert Park about queuing times.” 
 
Norman stayed on the case and reported again the following year: “after some hundreds of thousands of years of human life on earth, some factual research as to gender toilet practice is to be undertaken and as a result an adequate number of toilets for females will be prescribed in the Building Code of Australia Act.
 
He also described some of the well-known frustrations of an Ombudsman. I can certainly relate to these, though don’t have an example quite as outrageous as the MP who wrote to him in 1992 on behalf of a constituent who had been suffering stomach problems for many years which the constituent traced back to about the time he purchased a pie in a Brunswick shop in the early 1970s. He wanted the Ombudsman to investigate the matter. Sadly, Norman didn’t publish his reply.
 
He had a wonderful way with words: “This case has become another cross on the battlefield of futility where compassion and right are subservient to bureaucratic or legislative technicalities.”
 
He didn’t have much time for lawyers and even less for legalese: “A barrister’s opinion does not have the reliability of a Melbourne weather report”. And after a long battle to get hold of some legal advice an agency didn’t want to provide: “the request for advice could be simplified to ‘The Ombudsman has us over a barrel, how do we get out of this?’”
 
When he retired in 1994 his successor noted that he was the longest serving Ombudsman in the world. He was also active on the world stage – as Executive Secretary and Director of the International Ombudsman Institute, who presented him with honorary life membership in recognition of his outstanding service to the international Ombudsman community.
 
I had the privilege of meeting Norman soon after my appointment, and he would call me regularly to comment on my reports. I once asked him what he was proudest of in his tenure, and he told me it was the country visits programme and his employment of the first female investigation officers. He was clearly an early pioneer for women’s equality and I think he was genuinely delighted that a woman was finally doing his old job.
 
The essence of the role of Ombudsman is, in the words of its early proponents, to ‘humanise the bureaucracy,’ to address the imbalance of power between the individual and the State. Norman understood, and never lost sight of, people’s everyday struggles. He truly had the common touch.
 
With his powerful sense of humanity in all its foibles and occasional absurdity; his integrity and compassion, his courage and moral authority, he was the embodiment of the role.
 
Reflecting on his work I am reminded of the words of the philosopher Edmund Burke:  It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason and justice tell me I ought to do.
 
It is what Norman believed, and it is an honour to walk in his footsteps
 
To read Norman’s reflections on his decade-plus time as Victoria’s Ombudsman, see Special Report of Norman Geschke Ombudsman for Victoria on relinquishing office on 28 February 1994