COVID-19 crisis reinforces importance of Ombudsman to ensure fairness for VictoriansDate posted:
Complaints to the Victorian Ombudsman were the second-highest on record over the past 12 months, while the number of public interest (whistleblower) matters looked into has increased by 96 per cent over the past three years.
“The constancy of our values help us deal with the inconstancy of the emergency – the need to ensure fairness, enhance accountability, protect human rights and foster innovation and improvement is even greater,” Ms Glass said.
Her office’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic included:
- Investigating the treatment of public housing residents who were placed into hard lockdown for a fortnight in mid-2020; and who applied for the Government’s Business Support Fund. Both investigations are continuing.
- Joining with the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commissioner in writing to the Government to enquire into its response to the apparent risk of COVID-19 spreading in prisons and to provide advice on relevant human rights.
- Assisting Victorians impacted by the pandemic including a man whose Workcover payments were cut off while he was stranded overseas; a carer who felt she had no choice but to relinquish care of an infant; and a woman concerned about the public hygiene risk of no soap in local public toilets.
With her office able to investigate complaints from Victorians about more than 1,000 Victorian State and Local Government-related organisations, Ms Glass said the three ‘most complained’ about authorities continued to be:
- Corrections, Justice and Regulation (which includes prisons and Fines Victoria), although there was a 19 per cent reduction in complaints about this authority compared to the previous year, due in part to almost 12 per cent reduction in the prison population.
- Local Councils (accounting for about 22 per cent of all complaints).
- Health and Human Services (including child protection and public housing) and accounting for about 16 per cent of complaints.
Major investigations which the Ombudsman either completed or began in 2019-20 included:
- An investigation into the , which found multiple examples of agents unreasonably terminating claims and WorkSafe failing to properly exercise its powers. Fundamental reform is underway, in line with the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
- In June, Parliament asked the Ombudsman to investigate whether three Ministers had misused their entitlements for political purposes, as exposed by 60 Minutes and The Age. This has resulted in the first , demonstrating their ability to work together in the public interest.
Ms Glass said that from 1 January 2020, new functions and powers vested in her office by Parliament came into effect including an education function; the ability to carry out alternative methods of dispute resolution such as conciliation; and the power to investigate publicly-funded bodies. Furthermore, the threshold for whistleblowing has been lowered, and her office expects to have to consider more improper conduct matters as a result.
“Whether I can make meaningful use of my new functions or powers, however, and indeed continue to respond effectively to the increasing demands of my office, remains doubtful,” Ms Glass said.
“Once again, my ongoing funding has fallen substantially short of what is needed to respond to public expectations of my office.
“The funding of integrity agencies should be above the politics of the day – a principle even more important given our mandate to investigate the Government.
“Victoria has, understandably, spent many millions on inquiries and Royal Commissions, with the accountability of government an ever-increasing concern. Yet while its own Ombudsman has the powers of a Royal Commission and a proven ability to investigate matters of serious public concern in a highly cost-effective manner, the apparent reluctance to fund my office could risk looking like an attempt to undermine it.”
The Annual Report includes 14 case studies about how the Ombudsman dealt with complaints from Victorians, including about unfair fines, public housing maintenance and human rights issues. It also includes six case studies about whistleblower complaints looked into by our office in 2019-20.
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