13 July 2023

It's politicians not public servants who are to blame for Robodebt, says deputy prime minister

| Chris Johnson
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Richard Marles

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said it was the Liberal Party that created the “culture and the climate” that contributed to Robodebt. Photo: ADF.

Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles has urged Australians to go easy on public servants over the Robodebt scandal, saying the blame should lie with the former Coalition government that created the illegal scheme.

But the minister also acknowledged that people named in the Royal Commission’s sealed section are already being referred to police for possible prosecution.

Talking to ABC Radio on Thursday (13 July), Mr Marles would not be drawn on any specific public servants named in the Royal Commission’s final report, but stressed that work had begun to take action in response to its recommendations.

“The Robodebt Royal Commission came down last Friday. In its sealed section, which referred to a number of people within the public service for whom there had been adverse findings, there were processes that were recommended to be pursued,” he said.

“They began on Monday, literally the next working day, in terms of referrals of people to the APS Commissioner, to the AFP, to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

“In addition to that, decisions were taken in respect of all of those people about their ongoing status, be they on leave, on leave without pay, suspended, whatever the particulars were, and they varied from one person to another.

“Again, all of those decisions have been made. So, we’ve acted in respect of the Royal Commission.

“It’s really not appropriate for me to discuss the circumstances of an individual in respect of that.”

READ ALSO Services Australia boss tells staff to be strong while rebuilding public trust

But the deputy prime minister did not miss the chance to try and score a few political points against the opposition.

He said it was Coalition ministers who were most to blame for the automated debt recovery scheme that traumatised thousands of Australians.

“The real villains here are not the public servants, it is the former government,” Mr Marles said.

“The guilty party here is the Liberal Party.

“They are the ones that put in place the culture and the climate, and made the decisions which enabled the appalling gross maladministration that we saw in the handling of Robodebt to impact the lives of half a million Australians.

“That is where the blame lies and people need to have their focus on that.”

The comments lend weight to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s assertion the government is playing politics with the Royal Commission’s report.

He has chided Labor for expressing too much “glee” over the report, which was scathing of former prime minister Scott Morrison’s role in the Robodebt program.

While there are calls for Mr Morrison, who has outright rejected the commission’s findings against him, to leave parliament altogether – even from some in the Liberal and National parties – Mr Dutton is standing by him.

“I think it’s Scott’s decision as to whether he stays or goes,” the opposition leader told 2GB.

“He’s a good representative of his local community and he’ll make the decision that’s right for him.”

READ ALSO Senior public servants named in Robodebt report presenting a headache for the government

There is intense speculation about the future of former Department of Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell, who was also severely criticised by the Royal Commission.

Ms Campbell is on leave from her $900,000-a-year job as the government’s special AUKUS adviser.

Whether her name is among the 20 or so listed in the sealed section is yet to be officially revealed.

But Mr Marles and other government ministers have suggested that those who were named in the sealed section of the Royal Commission’s final report have been alerted and that referrals to relevant authorities have taken place.

In the publicly available sections of the report, former Coalition ministers Stuart Robert, Alan Tudge and Christian Porter were also criticised along with Mr Morrison.

The government is seeking legal advice over if and when the sealed section names can be released.

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Stephen Saunders2:29 pm 16 Jul 23

Complete nonsense, Deputy Prime Minister. Read what the report actually says, about various APS named. Stop rewriting Catherine Holmes already.

Years ago, under oath to a Labor Senator, Campbell scoffed at the victims, for their “failing to engage” with her shakedown. That was what repelled me.

These big-salary APS bigwigs had choices. They’d seen the “draft” legal opinions. They could walk, or simply do their jobs, or be government enforcers. They all chose the last. Leon tried to pretend, she was the good guy, and Holmes saw straight through her.

Of course a lot of blame needs to be laid at the feet of the politicians, but public servants should not be allowed to use a “just following orders” or a “I didn’t appreciate the gravity of the legal advice” defence. The more senior the officer, the more responsibility they should have been shouldering to ensure legislation and reasonable community expectations were recognised.

I’ve been a public servant and I appreciate that the government of the day has the right to implement its policies, but there were lines I would not have crossed, even if it meant my job was on the line. I also came across one of the senior public servants embroiled in this debacle when she was in a different department. She was a bully and she left me with concerns when she wouldn’t listen to dissenting voices. There were a lot of complaints about this woman by junior staff which were ignored. Even senior staff found it easier to let her be wrong rather than risk her wrath. Maybe if complaints from junior staff were taken seriously, then the apparent untouchable status of these people would not have become so much of an issue.

HiddenDragon8:08 pm 13 Jul 23

The political weaponisation of Robodebt, wrapped in fate-tempting hubris and so-much-holier-than-thou sanctimony, simply increases the odds that the real lessons will be overlooked and/or too quickly forgotten – as happened when the then Coalition government weaponised the pink batts scheme and other real and claimed sins and perfidies of the Rudd/Gillard governments.

There is, of course, all sorts of public sector “reform” activity going on under this government, which might be claimed to build on the findings of the Royal Commission and thus reduce the chances of history repeating, but stripped of the jargon and waffle much of this activity looks like an exercise in normalising and entrenching the values of one side of politics – which is usually just a slower and more meandering route to the sort of pathology which manifested itself in Robodebt.

Wise words from HiddenDragon & megsy.

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