role is to make public servants provide services
to people’ Business line, April 22,
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
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
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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