15 November 2022

Robodebt was a stuff-up not a conspiracy, former secretary tells Royal Commission

| Chris Johnson
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Finn Pratt

Finn Pratt appearing at the Robodebt Royal Commission: “I trusted Ms Wilson and implicitly the advice that she gave me.” Photo: Screenshot.

“Commissioner, in my experience in public service, it is almost always a stuff up. I cannot think of any examples where a conspiracy has been co-opted by people to do something deliberately.”

Those were the words of retired departmental secretary Finn Pratt when he appeared before the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme.

Mr Pratt headed the Department of Social Services between 2013 and 2017 and told the royal commission on Thursday (10 November) that while he was not across the details of the failed debt-recovery scheme, he accepted the assurances from Centrelink that it was lawful.

He even signed a letter to that effect when responding to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report in 2017.

It was on the advice of his deputy secretary Serena Wilson, who had earlier told the hearing that she had advice the scheme was unlawful but she didn’t pass that advice to Mr Pratt.

“I trusted Ms Wilson and implicitly the advice that she gave me,” Mr Pratt told the commission.

“Ms Wilson is one of the finest public servants I’ve had the privilege of working with. She was highly intelligent, highly expert and highly ethical.

“In my view, if I think people have discharged their responsibilities in good faith, then I take responsibility as secretary.”

Serena Wilson

Serena Wilson said she had advice Robodebt was unlawful but she didn’t pass that advice to Mr Pratt. Photo: Screenshot.

The former secretary said public servants are good at damage control and that implementation of the unlawful scheme was more a stuff-up than a conspiracy.

“Sometimes bureaucracies can be pretty good at trying to minimise the damage from adverse reports in the media or in senate estimates,” he said.

“If you are suggesting to me that there was a conspiracy among my people to dupe me, I refuse to believe that.

“I worked with these people for many, many years and that is not the nature of these people.”

READ ALSO Flexibility the key to a good public service

Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by Services Australia for Centrelink compliance.

It began in 2016 and became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices causing untold physical and mental health issues among notice recipients.

It became the subject of numerous inquiries, leading to the Coalition government scrapping the scheme in 2020 and promising to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.

In 2021 Federal Court Justice Justice Bernard Murphy ruled the scheme unlawful.

Following Labor’s election victory this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.

READ ALSO A wee story from estimates, b-b-b-bad, the old Bailey and more APS news bites from our hound on the ground

Another former secretary, Kathryn Campbell, who ran the Department of Human Services between 2011 and 2017, also appeared before the royal commission on Thursday.

She blamed Mr Pratt’s department for not being across the legal aspects of the scheme.

“We had left that to the Department of Social Services with responsibility for the legislation,” Ms Campbell said.

“I had not subsequently seen the details that were finally agreed by the government in the lead-up to the budget.”

The scheme was expected to raise more than $1 billion for the federal government.

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Such yesterday news. Who cares? Move on

William Newby6:23 am 13 Nov 22

When ever it hits the fan in the APS there never seems to be any one to take responsibility, and yet whenever their is a pay review or an opportunity for further career progression these individuals will gladly boast that they are in charge of it all.
No surprise to see Kath Campbell throwing everyone under the bus, she was in charge but it was nothing to do with her?!

Took the words out of my brain with that last sentence. Finn Pratt was pretty candid about what happened at his end, Kathryn Campbell goes off like a lawn sprinkler, throwing everyone under every bus, it was everyone but her.

HiddenDragon7:42 pm 12 Nov 22

The buck-passing between the “policy” department and the “operational” department was particularly depressing, unlike this entertaining effort on the very same issue from Sir Humphrey – which, happily, involved no loss of life and the relatively paltry sum of £75,000 –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIto5mwDLxo

I’d suggest that those who apparently thought themselves not responsible might want to give back the salaries they were paid for being responsible for everything their departments did.

There is little difference between incompetence and corruption. Each has a cost.

Very simply, none of the public servants in charge took responsibility for ensuring that this program was legal, appropriate, moral and safe. Nor did the politicians. Teflon shoulders for all of them as the blame slid downward or to an amorphous culture or system. Rubbish.

All of them had the responsibility to ensure what they were doing was right and they were all extremely well paid to do that. They failed. All of them. Many innocent people were harmed as a result. None of those paid to be responsible did their job of managing their areas of operations properly, yet they lost nothing and were paid for not doing their jobs well.

devils_advocate12:44 pm 12 Nov 22

Couple of points:
1) is the Minister at the time going to take any responsibility for this? I think they have a term for this under the Westminster system.
2) is the bar for public services entities – either policy agencies or those administering outlays – set at “well, we didn’t specifically know with 100% certainty it was illegal, so on that basis we went ahead”.
3) regardless of whether it was the policy agency or the agency delivering the administered payments, would they not seek some positive assurance that what they were doing was above board?

Robodebt should have been targeted at pollies

Stephen Saunders11:57 am 12 Nov 22

Stuff up or conspiracy, who cares. We’re talking about a conga line of the most senior public servants, blasé about the legality or otherwise of a scheme that caused huge distress to thousands.

In Home Insulation, the “penalty” suffered by certain wrongdoing officials was a promotion. Let’s see how we go, this time around.

I’ve met Finn Pratt a few times and he always struck me as a decent and competent manager. Reading this, I need to review that opinion. I think BarryB below sums it up pretty well.

Clearly he failed. He seems to trust people instead of monitoring and managing them. Whilst you need to treat staff with respect, that doesn’t mean a complete lack of oversight.

Finn Pratt started out in the CES, he was still doing stints on the counter at Civic when I joined in the 80s. He’s been face to face with the reality of unemployment and general disadvantage, and for most of his career he seemed to retain that memory of what the clients actually look like.

Central to the issue is how to calculate welfare entitlement. That is set out in law. It is set out in masses of instructions and guidance issued by the departments. It is implemented by thousands of staff every day. Yet, those in charge didn’t seem to know how entitlements were calculated nor to think it was relevant to their work or the advice they gave to government. Now they seek to blame those they “relied” on within the departments. Now they seek to blame the “circumstances” and/or the “culture”. No. They are made heads of organisations supposedly because they are expert in what those organisations do, can manage that work and can advise government properly and accurately on that work. Their performance does not match that responsibility. They also seem to have lost sight of the moral dimension – that their work affects people and sometimes at great cost.

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