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Asher's missing annual report

David Pope's cartoon for this month's Public Sector Informant.

This month's Public Sector Informant tells the tale of former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher's highly critical final annual report, which was never published.

Asher gives his views in this interview, while former deputy ombudsman John Wood explains his efforts to track down the missing report via freedom of information law.

Here's the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's full response on the matter (only part of which could fit in the newspaper):

Why did the Ombudsman's office not table Mr Asher's version of the annual report, given that he was the ombudsman during the period of the report, and instead table (then acting ombudsman) Alison Larkins's version?

Mr Asher did not provide a signed complete version of the annual report for tabling prior to his resignation on the October 28, 2011.

By convention, annual reports are expected to be tabled by October 31, 2012. Ms Larkins received a version of the annual report for her clearance on November 29, 2011.

The responsibility of clearing public documents sits with the person in the role of ombudsman at the time the report is presented for clearance, not with the person who was ombudsman during the period being reported on. The current Ombudsman, Colin Neave, has cleared and signed the office 2011-12 report, despite not being the ombudsman during the period being reported on.

Under the Ombudsman’s Act, only the person in the role of the ombudsman has the authority to make public comment by the office. Given the 2010-11 annual report had not been finalised prior to Mr Asher’s resignation, it fell to the acting ombudsman, Ms Larkins, to clear and release the annual report.

Why did Ms Larkins's version of the report omit Mr Asher's comments about a lack of funding for the office and its subsequent inability to "provide overall assurance to the public and the Parliament that fair and accountable administrative action is being taken by responsible Australian government agencies"?

As the annual report was signed by Ms Larkins, it reflected her understanding of the work and circumstances of the office of the ombudsman. Ms Larkins did not believe the office had sufficient evidence to support the statements made by Mr Asher in relation to funding.

Ms Larkins noted in the foreword to the 2010-11 annual report that the office "would continue to develop a more detailed understanding of the cost drivers of various elements of the office's work. This will provide us with an evidence base to inform future decision-making on the resource needs of the office".

The first time the passage referred to by Mr Asher appears in a version of the annual report held by this office is November 14, 2012.

3 comments so far

  • Mr Asher's concealed report notes: "...there is little to suggest that Australian government agencies are any more immune to corruption than their state counterparts, which continue to identify and deal with systemic corruption issues."

    Evidence of the accuracy of this unsurprising observation will become available upon the creation of a Federal agency with the powers of ICAC.

    Waiting for Fed ICAC
    Date and time
    November 06, 2012, 1:37PM
    • What a nonsense answer from the ombudsman's office. All the Acting Ombudsman had to do was sign a letter of transmission saying 'I am presenting the annual report prepared by the ombudsman at the 30 June 2011, Mr Asher.' QED

      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 4:32PM
      • Alsion Larkins is an employee of the Department of Immigration and only held the position as A/g Commonwealth Ombudsman on a temporary basis while she was on "leave". She will no doubt be returning back to her employer, the Department of Immigration to resume her "substantive position". Wonder if she'll get a promotion?

        Date and time
        November 06, 2012, 5:29PM

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