Victorian Ombudsman delivers fourth biennial report card

About $42 million dollars in financial support for pandemic-affected businesses entitled to Business Support Fund grants, more than 2,000 parking fines reversed by a council and major reforms to help homeowners struggling to pay their rates.

These are just a few of the outcomes delivered from the recommendations made by Ombudsman Deborah Glass over the past two years.

Ms Glass has tabled in the Victorian Parliament her fourth biennial report on the implementation of her recommendations.

Her report covers 51 recommendations made to state and local government bodies between May 2020 and December 2021. All except one of her recommendations were accepted by the relevant body, with 31 implemented in full and 16 in progress. They include:

Improve public administration – Business Support Fund during the pandemic

“The response to my investigation into the Business Support Fund – an economic lifeline during the pandemic – resulted in more than 4,200 rejected applicants collecting $42 million in financial support. It also showed how it is possible for a large department to learn and improve. I commend the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, who engaged constructively with our investigation, resolving many complaints and improving its processes along the way,” Ms Glass said.

Reform and return of unfair fines – Melbourne City Council

The Ombudsman found the City of Melbourne had acted unfairly in upholding fines against drivers who had paid the correct fee and parked legally but made a simple mistake.

“The City of Melbourne responded positively during and after my investigation into its parking fines, especially those involving people unfairly fined for confusing O and zero on its PayStay app. More than 2,000 fines issued to motorists were reversed, and systemic changes implemented,” Ms Glass said.

Legislative Reform – Local Councils respond to ratepayer hardship

Ms Glass had heard concerns about the way local councils treat people who cannot afford their council rates. With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to increase financial hardship, she commenced an investigation, which found widely inconsistent practices, often comparing poorly with sectors such as banking and utilities.  

The Ombudsman’s report recommended reforms to set minimum standards for rate hardship relief. It also proposed capping penalty interest rates, improving oversight of debt collectors and providing better public information about people’s rights and options.  These were recently enshrined in law.

The report also follows up on changes to the Victorian workers’ compensation scheme, canvassed in two previous reports. One key reform is now legislated: a new arbitration function, which will enable timely and inexpensive binding decisions on disputes rather than workers having to resort to the courts. 

“I commend all the Ministers, departments and agencies who have embraced and driven these changes in the public interest,” Ms Glass said.

“Sometimes, however, my recommendations are not accepted. In such cases it is the role of this biennial report to reflect on why, and to hold agencies to account for their inaction.” 

“About 3,000 residents of nine inner-Melbourne public housing towers are still waiting for the apology I recommended for the harm and distress caused by the immediacy of their July 2020 lockdown. It still matters: we have been told residents felt disheartened and let down by the lack of an apology, and that it remains a barrier to rebuilding trust with the government.” 

“The official response was the government made no apology for saving people’s lives. I did not investigate or criticise the six statewide lockdowns, despite receiving multiple complaints about them. But the public housing towers remain the only lockdown, before or since, that took place on no notice whatsoever to affected people.”  

Another Ombudsman report where recommendations were not fully accepted concerned the exemption scheme operating during the Victorian border closure in 2021. It recommended that the government publicly acknowledge the narrow exercise of discretion in granting exemptions resulted in unjust outcomes, and consider measures to alleviate this, such as ex gratia payments. 

As Ms Glass stated: “The response sidestepped the issue and focussed on the number of times Victorians were warned to come home. But not all those locked out were holidaymakers who could have done so. Many had no choice; people were dealing with urgent, sometimes desperate, personal circumstances. I criticised an exemption system which put more effort into keeping people out than finding safe ways of bringing them home.”

“The official response to my recommendation was both slow and lukewarm, appearing months later on the Department of Health’s website.”

“I do not make large numbers of recommendations and I make none of them lightly. I am proud of what they have achieved in collaboration with the public sector leaders, in pursuit of better administration and ultimately, public confidence in government and its service. And I note with regret that trust and confidence are the likely losers when they are – even if rarely – ignored,” Ms Glass said.

Link to Report

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