Wednesday, 17 October 2012

"Fairness to all"

We all love a stirring milestone, and this one is up there with the best of them. The 30th September marked fifty years since New Zealand set up its own office of the Ombudsman – the first country outside of Scandinavia to do so.

Loosely translated, the word Ombudsman means “grievance person”. That's just what they are - the “go to” people if you’ve got a gripe with your school’s board of trustees, the ECQ, IRD, the ACC or any government department. 

Ref: A dispute amongst workers, AWNS-19080917-12-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Back in 1962, Sir Guy Powles (1905-1994) was our first New Zealand Ombudsman. A former High Commissioner to both Samoa and India, he’d worked closely with Samoa in the lead up to independence before taking the Ombudsman role; he retired in 1977.  Past Ombudsman have included the Hon. Anyan Satyanand  and former local government commissioner, Sir Brian Elwood.  Our current Chief Ombudsman is Dame Beverley Wakem, only the third woman in New Zealand to have had that role. She is also the current President of the International Ombudsman Institute.

The Ombudsman’s office has widened its jurisdiction  over the years from investigating complaints solely concerning central government to now including education, hospital boards, and local government. The Ombudsman staff can, under the Protected Disclosures (“whistle blower”) Act 2000 give advice if you’re planning a complaint against a department, and are also the folk who make sure prisoners are safe whilst incarcerated (Crimes and Torture Act). Right now, the office is dealing with a staggering upsurge in complaints – many of them against the ECQ following the Christchurch earthquakes.

Ref: A dispute between a cabbie and a customer, AWNS-19101229-10-3, Sir George Grey Special Collections
Interestingly, next month sees New Zealand play host to the 10th world conference of the International Ombudsman Institute (Wellington, 12-16 November). The 50 year milestone will be honoured, including a panel featuring Sir Anand Satyanand, Sir Brian Elwood, the Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer, and public law specialist, May Chen.

Author: Joanne Graves, Central Auckland Research Centre

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