ANZOA Conference

Speech to the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association Conference, Wellington
6 May 2010

I begin by greeting everyone in the languages of the realm of New Zealand, in English, Māori, Cook Island Māori, Niuean, Tokelauan and New Zealand Sign Language. Greetings, Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni and as it is the morning (Sign)

I then specifically greet you: Fiona McLeod, Chair of the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association and fellow members of the ANZOA Executive; Rt Hon Dame Sian Elias, Chief Justice of New Zealand; Beverley Wakem Chief Ombudsman for New Zealand,; Ombudsmen from Australia and New Zealand; Distinguished Guests otherwise; Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting my wife Susan and I to the opening of the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association Conference here in Wellington this morning. 

As Governor-General and an erstwhile member of the Ombudsman family, it is good to be among a number of friends and familiar faces.

In particular, I wish to acknowledge Liz Brown, until last year the New Zealand Banking Ombudsman for 14 years, whom I had the pleasure of investing as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit at an investiture ceremony last week.

Given this is the first time that ANZOA's biennial conference has been held in New Zealand, I would also like to welcome visitors from Australia to Wellington and New Zealand. I trust you may also have the opportunity to see a little more of New Zealand while you are here.

I have been asked to formally open your conference, but before I do so, I would like to speak of the growth of the Ombudsman concept and, in particular, the theme of this year's conference.

This year marks 201 years since the first modern Ombudsman was established in Sweden in 1809.  I say "two hundred and one" and not "two thousand and one" as it has not been quite a space odyssey!  But in a story worthy of Homer's Odyssey, it has been a long and eventful journey.

The growth of the Ombudsman concept was slow and restricted to Scandinavia before its adoption in New Zealand in 1962.  Under the able stewardship of New Zealand's first holders of the office, Sir Guy Powles and then Sir George Laking, the Ombudsman's jurisdiction in this country progressively widened.

Once the concept was adopted in its first home outside Scandinavia there was rapid growth and it has been adopted in many jurisdictions at local, state and national levels.

The International Bar Association in the 1970s defined the Ombudsman concept in the following words:  "An Office provided for by the Constitution or by action of the Legislature or Parliament and headed by an independent high-level public official, who is responsible to the Legislature or Parliament, who receives complaints from aggrieved persons against government agencies, officials and employees, or who acts on [his] own motion and who has the power to investigate, recommend corrective action and issue reports."

What has occurred since, has been the adoption of the concept on a far wider scale, with a shift from just the public sector to the private sector, with a vast array of industries now having appointed ombudsmen.

As the membership of ANZOA amply testifies, there are now ombudsmen or commissioners responsible for handling public complaints from industries as diverse as banking, savings and insurance, to water, energy, public transport and telecommunications.  With that widening focus, the definition of what an ombudsman is, has subtly changed.

While the public sector is often noted for adapting concepts from the private sector, the Ombudsman can be said to be one of the few concepts that has moved from the public sector to the private sector in the last 30 years.

But whether the Ombudsman scheme in question operates in the traditional parliamentary format, or handles complaints in an industry setting, what binds them together is the highest standards of independence, integrity impartiality and effectiveness.

In this, ANZOA, as the peak body for Ombudsmen in Australia and New Zealand, is coming to play a key role in setting, maintaining and monitoring those standards.

I now turn to the theme of your conference which states: "It's the putting right that counts."  The theme is familiar to me as it is a phrase I used myself in 2006 for a report that resulted from a review I undertook of New Zealand's Banking Ombudsman Scheme.

It was not, however, the first use of the phrase in an Ombudsman context.  In my report, I noted its use by pre-eminent jurist, Rt Hon Sir Kenneth Keith, in an address to a meeting of Australasian and Pacific Ombudsmen in February 2005.  Sir Ken, now a member of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, had in turn picked the phrase as the motto a well-known Wellington whiteware retail firm, L.V. Martin and Son.

While the phrase still has some currency, its origin, at least in this country, was from a time when consumer expectations were much lower and when product quality was not as high as it is today.

When the Office of Ombudsman was first established in the New Zealand in 1962, it was seen, at best, as a nuisance, and at worst, as a threat, by many in the public sector.

With time, an Ombudsman's investigation came not to be seen as a threat but as an opportunity.  Of course, there was always the comfort at the end of an investigation that found the agency had done nothing wrong.  Increasingly, chief executives saw an Ombudsman intervention-regardless of the outcome-as an opportunity to look afresh at their systems and to improve their service.

However, just as customers expect higher standards from retailers than they did 40 years ago, the public rightly expects higher standards of service from government agencies as well.  In a sense, therefore, while it remains true that "it's the putting right that counts," the sector has also embraced the view that "it's the getting it right in the first place that counts even more." 

The need to "put things right" points to a perennial issue, namely whether it is an ombudsman's role to merely put right an individual complaint or to put right the system that caused it in the first place.  This is especially so, when no sooner does the ombudsman begin an investigation than the offending authority offers to make amends.  Should the investigation end there-complaint resolved-or should one look further?

Many complaints, of course, are caused by one-off, isolated factors that may never be repeated.  Others are caused by deeper systemic issues, but spotting the difference is not always easy.  Unless there were multiple complaints about a similar issue, even after 10 years as an ombudsman, for me it was more than once what can be described as a gut instinct that suggested a deeper look into an organisation's systems was required.  

It will never be an easy call, but making the call it comes back to the fundamental role of an ombudsman.  In the case of parliamentary ombudsmen, as officers of Parliament and creatures of statute, their legal duty is, of course, to that institution.

But more widely, the mandate is to higher principles of fairness and justice, whether it is in a commercial transaction with a bank or the provision of government service.

While the Ombudsman's work was originally seen in humble terms as a simple, low-cost way that citizens could have grievances against public bodies investigated by an impartial authority, the role is increasingly being seen as a key to human and political and civil rights.

This point was well made by former New Zealand Chief Ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood in his address to 9th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute in Stockholm last year.  Commenting on the reasons why politicians opened the doors to independent review of administrative conduct Sir Brian noted:

"The simplest answer in my view is the emergence after the end of World War II of the need to better recognise the universality of fundamental human rights: a movement that emphasised a shift away from the primacy of nation state towards the primacy of the individual citizen and how they were to be regarded by the nation state."

In essence, there was recognition that good governance is a basic requirement for the enjoyment of all civil rights.  If a government is corrupt in its handling of its finances, then the chances that it will pay heed any other key rights-of expression, of religion or to fair elections-will be far from guaranteed.

In essence too, whether one is dealing with complaints against a bank or a gas company, or responding to complaints about a government department or a state-owned enterprise, it is the commitment to principles of fairness and justice that is more important.  

This point was addressed by another New Zealand Chief Ombudsman, Sir John Robertson, in a speech to the sixth International Ombudsman Institute Conference in 1996 in Buenos Aires.  While Sir John was commenting on the differences between parliamentary ombudsmen around the world, his comments could just as easily apply to the differences between those in the public and private sector. Sir John said:

"[T]oo much attention has been given to arguing between the models being developed around the world ... [T]he real test in the end is how independent it is to criticise executive government processes, to hold government accountable for its mistakes and to achieve credibility and trust both with the government and the governed."

And on that pivotal note, it is with great pleasure that I declare the biennial conference of the Australian and New Zealand Ombudsman Association open.

And with that official duty undertaken, I will close in New Zealand's first language Māori, by offering everyone greetings and wishing you all good health and fortitude in your endeavours.    No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, kia ora, kia kaha, tēnā koutou katoa.

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