COVID leads to Ombudsman complaint spike

A snap lockdown for Flemington public housing residents was deemed a breach of human rights.
A snap lockdown for Flemington public housing residents was deemed a breach of human rights.

Human rights complaints to Victoria's Ombudsman spiked by almost a quarter last financial year, with "unprecedented demand" for the watchdog's services brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her annual report released on Thursday, Ombudsman Deborah Glass says overall complaints to the office rose by 12 per cent after receiving 18,000 grievances from almost half of all Victorian suburbs.

Complaints about human rights breaches rose by 23 per cent to 2770 over the 12 months, with 274 COVID-related complaints over public health directions.

Ms Glass warns public officials about the "sometimes unwelcome truth that human rights still matter".

"There can be little doubt COVID-19 has forever changed the public's conception of government, human rights and what is possible in Australia, as we see limitations on those freedoms that would not long ago have been unimaginable," she says in the report.

"But even during a global pandemic, perhaps especially during a global pandemic, human rights cannot be ignored."

Complaints about the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages jumped by 165 per cent, or 400 complaints, after it closed its call centres last year. The registry's customer service centre remains closed.

The ombudsman's investigations included the snap lockdown of 3000 Flemington public housing residents, finding the decision breached human rights and led to greater safeguards put in place for residents.

While the state government is yet to apologise over the issue, Ms Glass said she was pleased to see a "very different" response to COVID-19 public housing outbreaks in the year since.

VicRoads received 695 complaints over issues including the availability of driver testing, access to customer service centres, delays when calling and paying registration fees when unable to move due to lockdown.

Undisclosed conflicts of interest continued to dominate the list of misconduct allegations.

Councils received the most complaints, receiving 3457 grievances, many of them over issues around communication with ratepayers, followed by Corrections at 3367 and Business Victoria at 1414.

The watchdog found more than 10,000 business owners were denied $10,000 grants under the government's Business Support Fund scheme.

Those businesses were invited to reapply and later grant schemes have not resulted in as many complaints, the ombudsman found.

More than 14,900 complaints were received via phone, while online complaints rose by 38 per cent to 9068 and overall inquiries to the ombudsman increased by 45 per cent to 5199.

Australian Associated Press