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Parliamentary committee scrutiny of the Commonwealth Ombudsman—Private Member’s Bill


  
A Private Member’s Bill introduced on 1 November 2011 in the Senate by Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown seeks to bring the operation, functions and resourcing of the Commonwealth Ombudsman under the scrutiny of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. The Commonwealth Ombudsman is an independent statutory office established by the Ombudsman Act 1976 (Cth).

The Public Accounts and Audit Committee Amendment (Ombudsman) Bill 2011 follows the resignation of the former Ombudsman, Allan Asher, in late October 2011 over his provision of suggested questions to Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young prior to the May 2011 Senate Budget Estimates hearings. In a statement to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee at the October 2011 Supplementary Budget Estimates hearings, Asher indicated that his motivation for providing the questions to Senator Hanson-Young had been to raise concerns over resourcing of the Ombudsman’s office. On 2 November 2011 the Special Minister of State, the Hon Gary Gray, made a ministerial statement in relation to Asher’s resignation.

In his Second Reading speech on the Bill, Senator Brown stated that the events leading to Asher’s resignation ‘highlighted the necessity to provide the Commonwealth Ombudsman with the same access as the Auditor-General to committee oversight to ensure that future holders of that office can overcome the roadblock on reporting back to parliament on performance’.

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) is established by the Public Accounts and Audit Committee Act 1951 (Cth) (‘the Act’) for each Parliament and has a range of duties including examining the accounts of the receipts and expenditure of the Commonwealth, the financial affairs of Commonwealth authorities, and all reports of the Auditor-General  tabled in the Parliament. The JCPAA also considers the operations and resources of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) including funding, staff and information technology, and can report to the Parliament on the performance of the ANAO at any time. The JCPAA can also report to the Parliament on any matter relating to the Auditor-General’s functions and powers that the Committee considers should be brought to the attention of the Parliament.
Senator Brown’s Bill proposes to replicate a number of the JCPAA’s existing statutory duties regarding the Auditor-General and the ANAO with application to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Under the proposed amendments the JCPAA would:
  • examine all reports of the Ombudsman tabled in Parliament and report to the Parliament on any items or matters in those reports, or circumstances connected with them, that the JCPAA thinks should be drawn to the attention of the Parliament
  • consider the operations and resources of the Ombudsman including funding, staff and information technology, and report to the Parliament on any matter arising from this (or any other matter relating to the Ombudsman’s functions and powers) that the JCPAA thinks should be drawn to the attention of the Parliament
  • report to the Parliament on performance of the Ombudsman at any time, and
  • any other duties given to the JCPAA by the Act, by any other law, or by Joint Standing Orders approved by the Parliament.
The Bill also specifies that nothing in the proposed amendments would authorise the JCPAA to direct the activities of the Ombudsman.
The Bill is currently before the Senate.