‘Our key role is to make public servants provide services to people’

Business line, April 22, 2011

A debate is raging in India as the Government, after pressure from civil society, gets ready to put an ombudsman in place to tackle corruption. Australia has had one for 35 years now. Allan Asher, Australia’s ombudsman, was in Delhi recently to attend a conference. In an interview with Business Line, Mr Asher talks about his role and how the system works in that country. Excerpts:

Q: Who appoints the ombudsman in Australia?

A: In Australia, the ombudsman is appointed by the full Cabinet. There is a public selection process where there is advertisement and interviews and a then panel of names goes to the Cabinet. It then asks the Governor General to appoint the person. The ombudsman is not responsible to a minister, it is only responsible to Parliament.

Q: How does it function? What is its structure?

A: We have offices in all states. We do our own recruitment and have our own officers, and we are independent from all other departments of the government.

Q: What is the process of dealing with a case, say, of corruption?

A: The public first raises an issue if they have any administrative problem with a department — that’s the bulk of what we do. We handle administrative decisions that are defective, and some of those might be about corrupt practices. If we get evidence of a corrupt practice, we refer that to the police for investigation .We do not investigate corruption. However, the government is currently planning a national anti-corruption commission. But even if we do that work, we don’t want to be prosecutors as well. That is best left to a separate national prosecutor.

Q: What kind of cases do you generally get in Australia?

A: The majority are about government decisions about taxation, use of force by police in relation to immigration issues etc. The key role that we have is to make public servants provide service to the public – that’s fair, just and open. That I think is the greatest impact that any ombudsman can have. If decisions are fair and open and if you have proper freedom of information, that severely limits the possibility of corruption. Corruption can never survive in the open. It always depends on secrecy or confusion, and the more you write those out of the system, the more you reduce them.

Q: Are your decisions ever questioned?

A: All the time. And we encourage critics to complain when we fall short of expectations. We are setting up panels in all sectors, such as immigration or taxation, comprising members from civil society, small businesses etc.

Q: Do you think that an ombudsman should ideally have a legal background?

A: So far, all ombudsmen in Australia have been barristers or lawyers, although law doesn’t require it. But we do have a complicated role of interpreting administrative law and often we challenge the legality of a body’s position. Practically, somebody with legal qualifications is best placed to hold this position.

Q: There’s a view in India that the institution of ombudsman may become a supercop.

A: I am afraid of too much power in an agency. We would not want to have a role in prosecuting. If you are going to be an investigator, you can’t be the judge as well.

Q: Do you think this model will work in a huge country like India?

A: Maybe it will, may be it won’t. If the goals are right, that is to ensure that decisions made by civil servants are fair, just and transparent, it will work. It won’t solve all the problems, poverty and things like that, but it will make government agencies more responsive over time.

Q: Where do you see your role in the process?

A: I see my job as giving assurance to Parliament that we are there to make ensure that the executive does what it should do. Nobody in the executive can tell us what to do. We cannot be replaced. Of course, we can be starved, they can turn off the resources…but we can go public about that too. And here media can play a big role in this too.

Many people see us as the fourth arm of governments —the integrity arm — which includes national auditors, public service commissions and ombudsmen. And this concept is growing. More than 60 countries now have ombudsmen. China has a vast inspectorate system. In Taiwan, it is part of the Constitution to have this fourth arm of government.

Q: What kind of freedom do you have?

A: We have complete freedom. But as a matter of practice, we only comment on policy where it is poorly implemented, inconsistent or unlawful. But I don’t want overstate our contribution, too. We are a small body and rely on having a respectful relationship with the executive, Parliament and with the media. So far, this has worked.

Q: Do you get many cases from Indian immigrants?

A: Yes, many cases. One of the roles that I now have is as the overseas students’ ombudsman…this was just last week. There’s a website that we are going to set up. I will be seeing some government people here to see if we can get the Indian government to better equip that those going to study in Australia know where to go if they problems, how to avoid courses that may not lead to them losing a lot money and career choices etc.

Q: Why do you think there is resentment against Indians, rather Asians?

A: The problem of Australia is that it’s tiny outpost with European culture, way down the bottom of an Asian world. And that’s meant that people have been insecure. For many years this insecurity was directed at the Chinese. But there are many people in Australia who are just plain racists, bad people. The numbers are quite tiny but, of course, they have a capacity to make a big noise and do terrible things. But by far the vast majority of Australians really welcome others. There are currently 80,000 Indians studying in Australia.

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