Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Ombudsman requires legal muscle

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): There are frequent reminders that personalities are the most important element when instituting an organization in Indonesia. The recent establishment of the National Ombudsman Commission is one example.

The public is expected to be impressed and reassured that henceforth their interests will be well served because of the array of names leading the commission, well known for their intellectual abilities as well as their proven courage to question the powers that be.

Few would doubt the ability of the head Ombudsman Anton Sujata, a former Deputy Attorney General for Crimes of Corruptions, to recognize an act of corruption or collusion when he sees one.

Nor would many people question the expertise of his deputy Sunaryati Hartono, professor of law, in putting the act in the context of the laws of the nation.

As for the members of the Commission, one look at the name of Teten Masduki of the Indonesian Corruption Watch would be enough to erase any remaining disquiet and satisfy any doubting-Thomas that the Commission consists of fearless people.

The legal basis for the Commission's power to probe, however, is only a presidential decree. Seeing that an ombudsman is an independent official appointed to investigate citizen complaints against abuses by government officials and agencies, the commission needs a more powerful legal basis than a decree, which can be revoked with little difficulty.

The public needs to know, if they lodge a complaint against a particular government official or agency, that the commission will have the power to probe, and check its veracity with the alleged offending party?

When the commission completes an investigation and presents its report to the department or agency in question, will the government support the findings of the report? When appropriate, will the House or the Attorney General act on those findings?

Is the Commission really independent from the executive of the government? Can a president or a vice-president who for some reason becomes displeased by a report, fire a commission member, or even the whole commission?

In countries where the function of ombudsmen has long been institutionalized, its independence and the legal basis guaranteeing that independence is very solid.

In Australia for instance, apart from the Commonwealth ombudsmen, each state has an Office of Ombudsman, established by an Act of Parliament.

In Victoria, the Ombudsman's legal muscle is derived from Ombudsman Act 1973, reinforced by Police Complaints Act 1958, Freedom of Information Act 1982, and Telecommunication Act 1988.

Interestingly in Australia hardly anyone knows the identities of their ombudsmen, not because these are kept secret, but because such knowledge is not considered important by the people.

An ombudsman in Australia does not have to be a well known intellectual, public official or someone who has proven his or her fearlessness in fighting corruption in high places.

The job requirements, apart from knowledge about the government system, are to be independent and impartial. The Ombudsman is automatically protected by law from any threats of dismissal from a disgruntled head of state, or any other state official.

The Office of Ombudsman in Australia has the power to investigate, summon and interrogate witnesses; then make recommendations to the government department or authorities when irregularities have been proven.

If the recommendations are not implemented within a nominated length of time, reports will be tabled to Parliament for action.

While the Office of Ombudsman does not have the power to prosecute, its recommendations are usually acted upon and implemented.

Its weapons are the annual reports it publishes, that are available to the general public.

All government departments and officials wish to avoid being depicted in the report as dirty blots in a smooth running government.

This is not to say that Australia's ombudsmen have a straightforward job.

Many complaints, while basically addressed to a particular department, involve and implicate many other departments, making the investigations complex and time consuming.

Fortunately for them, they can carry out their responsibilities without having to worry on whose toes they might next trod.

The relative anonymity of Australia's ombudsmen contrasts sharply with the celebrity status of their newly appointed Indonesian counterparts.

Maybe the stature of Indonesia's ombudsmen is needed to make up for the relatively limited legal power provided to them.

The writer is a journalist based in Melbourne.