WA’s long-serving Ombudsman has been travelling the world at taxpayers’ expense, holding high-level diplomatic meetings with the likes of Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Chris Field, who has been Ombudsman since 2008 and is paid more than $450,000 a year, has visited China, Taiwan, Ukraine, Britain, the US, Slovenia, Thailand, Austria, Russia, France, Morocco, Poland and Hungary since last year.
He was often accompanied by principal assistant Ombudsman Rebecca Poole.
The international engagements, which were undertaken in Mr Field’s role as president of the International of Ombudsman Institute, were detailed in the WA Ombudsman’s recently released annual report.
The report’s shows a three-fold increase in travel expenses. The agency spent $266,670 last financial year, up from $84,706 in the preceding 12 months.
Miscellaneous expenses itemised as “other” increased from $149,723 to $248,101.
Mr Field’s works as president of the IOI is detailed across 46 pages of the report. Those pages are littered with pictures of Mr Field at various conferences and posing at landmarks.
The Ombudsman’s website has dozens more photos with Mr Field travelling around the world.
One visit to Austria was documented with details of a site-seeing tour.
“The visit included a private guided tour of the truly stunning Schloss Eggenberg; attending the opening night of Il Cappelo di paglia di Firenze in the Baroque masterpiece that is the Graz Opera House; and a private guided tour by the Director of the modern art museum, the Kunsthaus Graz,” Mr Field wrote.
Mr Field’s three-year term as president of the IOI commenced in May 2021.
Prior to that he was vice-president, a role which saw him travel to Toronto, New York, Thailand and the UK.
The IOI was established in 1978. It is organised in six regional chapters and bills itself as the peak body “for the world’s 205 independent Ombudsman institutions from more than 100 countries worldwide”.
A spokesperson for Premier Roger Cook said the Government “has no ability to direct the Ombudsman” because he was “an independent officer of the Parliament”.
“The Premier is aware of the details of the Ombudsman’s travel, and that they were referred to the relevant authorities,” the spokesperson said.
The Premier’s office did not detail who the “relevant authorities were”.
“The Premier expects all public officials to always act with the highest integrity and in the interests of all West Australians,” the spokesperson said.
The West Australian does not suggest that Mr Field acted otherwise .
Mr Field said the travel bill was bigger than usual in 2022-23 because travel bans crimped his travel plans the previous year.
“The 2022-23 visits actually represents what would normally have been undertaken over two years, as there is a certain amount of visits that each Ombudsman is asked, and expected, to undertake during their term as president,” he said.
“I ensure costs are kept to a minimum by extensive use of both live and pre-recorded video conferencing, rather than visiting a country.
“Another key factor in ensuring costs are absolutely minimised for West Australians, is the fact that significant financial contributions are made from the IOI for my travel.
“In relation to being accompanied on visits, the majority of Ombudsman who attend international meetings travel with a delegation.
“It is not unusual for the delegations to be four or five staff in addition to the Ombudsman. In my case, for every international visit I am asked to consider, I make an assessment as to whether I should attend in person; if so, does the nature of the visit mean I will travel unaccompanied; and does the nature of the visit mean I should be accompanied.
During the year . . . I undertook seven international visits, was unaccompanied on two visits, accompanied by my chief-of-staff on four, and accompanied by my chief-of-staff and a policy officer on one.”
Mr Field said he informed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade whenever he travelled abroad.
“Following the brutal and unlawful invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the IOI has undertaken a range of initiatives to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights,” he said.
“These include my visit to Ukraine to address a major international human rights conference alongside President Zelensky, tour the devastated region of Irpin, and attend a number of formal events in Kyiv; visiting Hungary to tour the borders of Hungary and Ukraine, in relation to the support provided by Ombudsman offices of the more than four million refugees that have fled through Hungary, and, of course, meeting refugees; and leading the expulsion from the IOI of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation, the only member of the IOI expelled in its 45-year history.”