7 March 2023

Politicians and pundits should give the Robodebt Royal Commission more respect

| Chris Johnson
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Robodebt Royal Commissioner is Ms Catherine Holmes AC SC

Robodebt Royal Commissioner is Ms Catherine Holmes AC SC. Photo: Screenshot.

Let’s talk about royal commissions because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what they are, how they operate, and how they should be treated both by casual observers, commentators and interested parties.

Is a royal commission an actual court?

Well, no, not exactly. But let’s not be fooled by that.

A royal commission has broad powers – coercive powers to compel someone to appear, give evidence, or otherwise participate in its inquiry.

It can summons witnesses to produce what it might consider evidentiary documents.

There are very few grounds on which someone can refuse to give evidence at a royal commission, and it is a serious offence to intentionally provide false or misleading evidence to one, or to intentionally insult, disturb or disrupt one.

In Australia, royal commissions are the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance.

They can refer matters to law enforcement agencies, suggest legal pursuit and recommend how things should change.

A royal commission is a form of non-judicial and non-administrative governmental investigation that is only established in exceptional circumstances and with tightly specified terms of reference.

They are so independent of government that once one is established, through the issuing of Letters Patent by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia under the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth), it can almost never be stopped even by the government that instigated it.

READ ALSO Robodebt shows just how far APS independence has been eroded, says Podger

Commonwealth royal commissions can only inquire into matters related to the Commonwealth’s responsibilities.

They are sometimes seen as political because it is often one side of politics calling an inquiry into something the other side did when it was in office.

The terms ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘kangaroo court’ will sometimes be used by a disgruntled opposition freshly turfed off the Treasury benches, yet royal commissions are almost always conducted professionally, thoroughly and at arm’s length from government.

Which brings us to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, headed by former Queensland Supreme Court Justice Catherine Holmes AC SC.

If ever there was an issue crying out for a royal commission, Robodebt is it.

Now in its last week of hearing witness evidence, this royal commission has uncovered a great deal while also respecting the dignity of all witnesses.

Similar can be said of the witnesses themselves and how they have approached the inquiry.

This is far too important a subject with which to be playing political games, which is why a continued commentary around the evidence is not such a wise thing.

This brings us to the Minister for Government Services, Bill Shorten.

Sure, this is Shorten’s portfolio area, but each time he pops up to condemn a former Coalition minister after an appearance before the inquiry, the more he invites accusations of political bias in it.

Throughout the royal commission, Shorten has called media conferences and made statements to suggest that the former Coalition government has squandered opportunities to use the inquiry to apologise for Robodebt.

He has described Stuart Robert’s evidence as “peak bizarre” and Scott Morrison’s as “peak vintage Morrison” and a “trainwreck”, while also claiming Marise Payne’s appearance was more plausible than her former boss’s.

He is doing his best to make this particular royal commission look like a partisan inquiry.

Which is a pity, because it’s not.

READ ALSO Shorten in peak form running commentary on royal commission

Media and other so-called pundit commentaries already suggesting who will be the victim/s of the inquiry – before it has even finished hearing evidence and months before it reports to the government – are undignified enough.

But when senior government ministers buy into (lead) opinionated discourse over evidence while the inquiry continues, they can damage the very credibility of the investigation itself.

Shorten is not the only one doing it. He’s just the most prominent and regular government MP running Robodebt commentary.

Of course, the commissioner and counsels assisting won’t be affected one bit by any political debate, but that’s not the point.

And it’s not the intent of the commentary. The royal commission is not the target audience.

No, royal commissions aren’t actual courts, so sadly, the norms of sub judice don’t quite apply.

But wouldn’t it be good if everyone – most notably our elected officials – gave them the same courtesy they must legally give to court cases?

That is, let the evidence be reported and decline to comment until the inquiry has done its job.

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Capital Retro10:29 am 13 Mar 23

No one really cares about this “show trial”. A few Liberal haters are outraged so, what?

I found the recent article about where to buy the best donuts in Canberra much more rewarding.

@Capital Retro
‘No one really cares about this “show trial”.‘ Which is CR-speak for I can’t deny that Robodebt was a poorly managed blight on the previous govt, so I choose to ignore it and hope that everyone else will ignore it too.

Capital Retro8:40 am 14 Mar 23

It was initially thought up by the previous Labor government.

Capital Retro – No it wasn’t. Stop trying to spin it. Previous governments had used income averaging to trigger some investigations, but the bastardry and illegality of Robotdebt was using income averaging to automatically raise a debt and begin recovery action without any checking the debt was accurate; before any appeals processes had been completed and, in some cases, before people had even been informed of an alleged debt. That was all the Coalition.

As usual, Capital Retro, you are quick with the hyperbole but short on facts. Yes, when in government, Labor did use data matching as a means to identify potential overpayments within the welfare system – which were then reviewed by Centrelink staff. Unfortunately, the incoming Coalition government, took it to the next level by automatically raising debts without any human intervention to verify an overpayment actually occurred … that’s the illegal bit that led to the $1.2b class action settlement. What’s your next point?

Julian2 makes some very important comments. It is actually stunning that there has been no statement of apology by senior people. Instead, it’s been all about avoiding taking any responsibility, which is a sad indictment on the public service as a whole, but especially on these departments and their staff.

The main impact I’ve seen in Canberra is that people do not want to work for these departments. They will struggle to recruit and retain staff, unless they change dramatically and signal that change publicly. If they fail to follow up, this will be well known and they will not be able to access the best people as employees at any level.

The other impact is alluded to in this article, people destitute because they’re terrified of claiming government support no matter how much they need it. Result, more homelessness and crime due to desperation and a sense that no-one cares about them.

As for the level of benefits for the unemployed, it sends the same message to the same people, that they don’t matter. We are becoming an awful society without compassion.

I agree that it would be better for politicians to shut-up and let the Commission run its course. But, expecting there not to be commentary about a former Cabinet Minister who admitted to lying to the media and Australian Public isn’t very realistic. And, the “peak bizarre” comment related specifically to that admission.

And what of the national newspaper, The Australian, barely mentioning the Commission is taking evidence despite the Public Service as much as politicians themselves being uncovered? These are potentially serious institutional failures.

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