WA’s integrity watchdog Chris Field spent much of the past two years travelling the world, but did it help WA?

WA’s integrity watchdog Chris Field spent much of the past two years travelling the world, but did it help WA?
  • PublishedMarch 24, 2024

For a man tasked with sorting out complaints about the Western Australian public service, the state’s 137 local governments and its five universities, Ombudsman Chris Field has been spending a lot of time out of the country.

The Office of the Ombudsman in WA receives thousands of inquiries and complaints a year from members of the public – about 14,000 of them in the 2022-23 financial year alone.

It also deals with highly sensitive issues such as reviewing child deaths and family violence fatalities, and makes recommendations about how to prevent these.

What the job does not entail however, at least according to the 1971 legislation that established the position, is international diplomacy.

Museums and hot springs

There’s no mention in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act of any requirement for the Ombudsman to promote WA’s interests on the international stage or to uphold global peace and democracy.

No requirement to undertake cultural exchanges with Uzbekistan or Bahrain or Canada.

Which presumably means liaising with the Mediator of the Kingdom of Morocco, meeting the president of the OECD in Paris and inspecting captured Russian military equipment on the streets of Kyiv are also outside the remit.

Yet these are all activities Mr Field has engaged in over the past couple of years.

Chris Field in a blue shirt and pants next to Rebecca Poole, in a white shirt and blue pants outside a temple.
Chris Field and his chief of staff Rebecca Poole in Taipei in July last year. (Ombudsman Western Australia)

He’s also planted trees in Hungary and Pakistan, visited a Slovenian day care centre and a firefighting museum in Austria, and admired the hot springs of Beitou, Taiwan.

Hundreds of dollars were also spent on two chauffer-driven trips in Paris that totalled less than two kilometres.

The thing is, not only is he WA Ombudsman but he was, until very recently, also president of the International Ombudsman’s Institute.

WA Ombudsman Chris Field stands in a candle-lit vigil with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Chris Field in 2022, at a cadlelight vigil with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.(Supplied: Annual Report of the Ombudsman)

This little-known body bills itself as a global organisation that focuses on “good governance” and represents ombudsmen in more than 150 countries.

He was the first ever Australian appointed to lead the Vienna-based body — which at the time drew a letter of congratulations by then-premier Mark McGowan.

But even when he’s not travelling the globe, Mr Field isn’t present in the WA Ombudsman office very much – just 36 days in 2023 – although he maintains he’s in “constant contact by phone and email with all of my staff” while absent.

No conflict in dual roles

Asked about his posts as both WA Ombudsman and International Ombudsman’s Institute (IOI) president, Mr Field told a corruption hearing this week he saw no conflict between the dual roles.

“I see them as one and the same thing,” he said. “I saw them as utterly complementary and never saw them in conflict.”

Mr McGowan seemed to think so too.

“I am sure you will bring a breadth of expertise to the role, while continuing to deliver excellent outcomes to the State of Western Australia,” he wrote in the congratulations letters.

Mark McGowan letter
Former WA Premier Mark McGowan wrote to Mr Field to congratulate him on his international appointment in 2020.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

This issue of wearing two hats is at the nub of why the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) is looking into Mr Field in the first place.

It wants to find out if the Ombudsman acted corruptly in using his position to benefit himself and his chief of staff, who frequently accompanied him on his overseas missions.

It’s also looking at whether Mr Field’s use of taxpayer funds to pay for the trips — to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – was for the benefit of WA.

Mr Field insisted it is.

A head and shoulders shot of WA Ombudsman Chris Field walking outside wearing a dark suit, blue tie, white shirt and spectacles.
Chris Field has been grilled over his extensive overseas travel and his lack of time spent in the office. (ABC News: David Weber)

He’s told the hearings he believed being president of the IOI went hand in hand with his duties as WA Ombudsman, a post he was appointed to 17 years ago.

Mr Field also stressed to the anti-corruption body the IOI’s own role in exposing corruption, describing it “supporting the rule of law through work on anti-corruption measures, integrity, transparency and good governance.”

This week the IOI confirmed Mr Field had quit his post as president, and a new president would be elected.

But its email to the ABC also contained a bombshell.

“In the interests of its members, the IOI feels compelled to clarify that Mr Field’s travel activities in question were neither initiated, expected, commissioned nor financed by the IOI,” the organisation said.

In other words, the IOI did not ask him to go on all those overseas trips in question and he wasn’t required to do so as president.

Yet in defending a tripling of his travel bill last financial year, Mr Field told the hearings: “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.

A man holds up a beige jacket
WA Ombudsman Chris Field poses for a photo at an overseas event.(Supplied: WA Ombudsman)

Mr Field had no comment when the ABC sent him the IOI statement.

Government knew of travel

The CCC hearings are not over yet, and Mr Field’s high-profile lawyer, former Attorney General Christian Porter, is expected to take the commission through more evidence.

Mr Field has so far based his defence on the fact that the Ombudsman is independent of government, telling the hearings this means he doesn’t need to seek the premier’s approval for travel.

But at the crux of his argument is that the government was well aware of his travel bill, which has been tabled in Parliament.

A mid shot of WA Ombudsman Chris Field and his lawyer Christian Porter next to a car outside the CCC.
Chris Field is being represented at the hearings by former Attorney-General Christian Porter. (ABC News: David Weber)

Mr Field said it was only after media reports surfaced late last year, revealing the extent of his international travel, that anyone in government or parliament raised concern about the IOI role detracting from his duties as ombudsman.

Like Mr McGowan had said in the letter Mr Porter tabled before the CCC, becoming president of the IOI was a “great achievement”.

The CCC was shown evidence that other ministers and high-ranking public servants knew of and supported Mr Field’s IOI role.

The hearings are set to resume in April, with the commission’s report due later in the year.


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