15 March 2023

Robodebt a shameful policy and now we know why

| Chris Johnson
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Catherine Holmes

Robodebt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC. Image: Screenshot.

Robodebt was a massive failure of policy and we didn’t need a royal commission to tell us that.

The failed scheme caused untold grief, was ruled illegal, crossed boundaries never before breached – and no-one wanted to take responsibility for it.

It is precisely that reason why we did need a royal commission into this tragic debacle that somehow was passed off as policy.

The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has been one of the most valuable inquiries this country has seen.

Most Australians already knew about Robodebt and its automated debt notices alarming so many innocent victims who were denied any form of recourse.

They knew about the huge debts people were getting, which seemed bizarrely unrealistic, disproportionately unfair, and downright wrong.

Few Australians would have escaped hearing of the trauma this program had caused.

It was eventually ruled illegal. Apologies were made. Money was repaid to innocent victims.

But some victims didn’t survive the trauma.

By the time Anthony Albanese established the royal commission late last year, the word Robodebt was part of the vernacular.

But little did we know then just how much this inquiry would uncover.

READ ALSO Legal opinion deliberately left out of ombudsman’s report into Robodebt, Royal Commission hears

Far more than a Senate estimates inquiry could do, the royal commission got to the core of the issue and found out so much about what went wrong.

An estimates committee asking questions of arrogant public service bosses in self-protection mode (with a minister sitting beside them running interference) can only do so much.

In a royal commission there is nowhere for the bureaucrats to hide, no-one to refer a question to, no ministerial protection to be found.

Indeed, there is nowhere for former ministers – former prime ministers even – to hide.

More than 70 witness hearings were held by the inquiry during more than 30 days of evidence delivered across four bulk sessions.

The last of the witnesses to give evidence appeared on Friday.

For the most part, those being questioned were remarkably forthcoming.

Some former ministers and senior bureaucrats, however, true to form, claimed no responsibility whatsoever.

Others did, lamenting the fact that they got it wrong – that they didn’t give this monster of a program the due diligence it required before it was inflicted on an unsuspecting public.

That they didn’t rein it in soon enough.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes and her counsels assisting were dogged and methodical, extracting a stockpile of valuable evidence that might otherwise have never been uncovered.

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

All the evidence pointed to a government gung-ho on a new way to raise revenue, determined that nothing would stop it.

Legal advice was ignored or buried. Some briefings were even changed.

Reasonable voices were drowned out.

While the government of the day acted ruthlessly and must be held accountable for this awful stain on the nation’s journey – the Westminster system demands as much – the public service is not blameless in the slightest.

The royal commission heard from one witness after another how certain departmental bosses were intent on pleasing their political masters and protecting their own jobs, to the cost and detriment of all else.

Yes, there are still a good many bullies alive and well and wreaking all manner of unprofessional havoc serving in the top ranks of the Australian Public Service.

And while there has been much speculation throughout the inquiry as to whose heads will roll, it should never be forgotten that the real victims of Robodebt were those innocent Australians who were illegally served false debt recovery accounts.

It is up to the royal commission now to prepare its report and make its recommendations concerning blame, justice, and even possible charges.

Then it is up to the Federal Government as to what it will do with those recommendations.

The evidence is in and it is pretty clear – Robodebt was a shameful policy that was implemented, promoted and defended by people in power who absolutely knew that it was.

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Peter Herman9:18 am 08 Jul 23

I believe that The operation designed by the previous govt should have been investigated before it started
Of course the orevioys govt would say ‘there was nothing wrong with it
The previous govt did do many ‘stupid’ corrupt things, that it was amazing that voters trusted them
I am not a Kabor or Liveral voter, but I saw many friends suffer because of what the orevioys mob did
The previous ‘not my job,’ pm should be held to account for what he did
He was a treasurer and not a PM…he had no idea what he was doing

Governments nowadays view the APS as extensions of ministerial offices, and public servants as ministerial staff. Sadly, the public servants seem to agree. Nowadays, “the client” is the minister.

I read in one commmission report that Kathryn Campbell proposed the Robodebt scheme to the government. Who presumably were very eager to have some way of harassing people on welfare, to motivate them to get off welfare. That viewpoint is engrained in the Lib/Nat side of politics, gaining its wings when John Howard abolished the CES in 1998 and replaced it with a patchwork of private providers.

All I think the royal commission has proven is that the public service is exactly what the government wants it to be, a service delivery agency. We’re well down a path where illegal acts are only illegal if you can’t afford a good lawyer. And we’re supposed to be satisifed with voting against dishonest, fraudulent and even criminal public officials, when any normal Australian could rightly expect to be jailed for similar behaviour. Seriously, why shouldn’t the ministers responsible be tried for fraud and manslaughter?

Pretty cool way of getting the funding for a new IT system when you think about it. If the scam had worked, it would have yielded a cool billion dollars that never really existed.

Surely this needs to be labelled an opinion piece? How is society to recoup the money stolen by welfare cheats in this country? Perhaps we need a ChatGPT debt?

The money stolen by welfare cheats pales into insignificance compared to the money stolen by the ultra wealthy in off shore tax havens and corporates moving money offshore.

The tax office has its own legal and internal mechanisms Sam Oak for investigating fraud. These mechanisms have been working adequately over many years.

As this article points out, Robodebt was an illegal and massive failure of policy. It caused untold grief and crossed boundaries never before breached. When crunch came to crunch, cowards in the government feigned all responsibility.

Robodedt has cost taxpayers $606 million in expenditure, $1.8 billion in court awarded settlement costs and a Royal Commission on top.

Lets also not forget the devastated families struggling to come to terms with their losses who are left to pick up the pieces!

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