12 July 2023

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

| Chris Johnson
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Kathryn Campbell

Senior public servant Kathryn Campbell, on leave from the APS since the Royal Commission into Robodebt handed down its report. Photo: File.

Senior public servants past and present who pushed the rollout of the illegal Robodebt scheme are bracing for the worst, with the Royal Commission into the saga naming some of them in the same sentence as the word ‘prosecution’.

They know who they are, as does the Australian Public Service Commission, which is ensuring agency heads refer names for a public service investigation headed by former APS commissioner Stephen Sedgwick.

But Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes has controversially publicly suppressed the names of those she recommends should be pursued for civil or criminal prosecution.

The APSC, the Attorney-General’s Department, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, along with the Australian Federal Police, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the ACT Law Society were all sent the sealed section of the Royal Commission’s final report.

This has led to mounting speculation and high tension over who has been named on the explosive list.

Much talk has centred on the Coalition ministers involved in the creation and implementation of the automated debt recovery program – including former prime minister Scott Morrison and former ministers Alan Tudge, Stuart Robert and Christian Porter.

But there are plenty of APS types who are justifiably nervous about their own futures.

Government lawyers are among them for how they advised or otherwise about the legalities of the scheme.

READ ALSO Sealed section of Robodebt report holds important public information

Former departmental secretary Kathryn Campbell, often referred to as the face of Robodebt, has attracted the most attention.

She is currently on ‘gardening duties’ from the $900,000 a year special AUKUS advisory job Labor sidelined her to after winning last year’s election.

She began the leave the day before the Royal Commission’s report was delivered to Governor-General David Hurley.

That report was highly critical of her behaviour in ignoring the illegalities of the scheme in order to please her political masters.

It accuses her of misleading cabinet in order to save herself embarrassment.

“Yeah, the Commission didn’t miss her in terms of their analysis,” Government Services Minister Bill Shorten told ABC Radio in answer to questions about whether Ms Campbell should stay in her government role.

“At this stage, I’m not commenting about individuals who may or may not have had adverse findings against them because I don’t want to get in [the] way, so to speak, of the process.

“As a general principle, I think that if you were highly involved in this scheme and you have an adverse finding, I think that becomes difficult for the government. But I can’t talk about individuals.”

READ ALSO Cabinet was misled and used as an excuse, according to Robodebt royal commission

On the ABC’s 7:30 program, the Minister went further about how the architects and orchestrators of Robodebt behaved and how they should be treated.

“This was a war on people on welfare. There was a trope, a proposition, a stereotype which said that there was a mountain of gold, that these ungrateful people, being treated as second-class Australians, were ripping off the system,” he said.

“And the Morrison and the Turnbull governments were going to go to war and get it all back for the taxpayers.

“So, it was a poor shaming, welfare attacking, vicious attack and it was illegal. It was unlawful from the get-go.

“And for four and a half cruel years the previous government shouted down, intimidated and ignored all of the red flags, the hurt, the harm, the firehose of complaint and grief…

“The sealed section has referred a range of public servants and some politicians to various regulatory agencies… and the facts of the matter do not reflect well on government, do not reflect well on some public servants or some ministers in the previous government…

“I do think at the end of the day that the citizens of this country have a right to see what happens, but we’ve got to make sure we get the processes right, which is what the Royal Commission spelt out…

“This Royal Commission outlines in tragic honesty the culpability of a range of Coalition ministers and senior public servants.

“There’s no escaping that. And if these characters think that somehow they’re in the clear, I don’t read that when I read this Royal Commission.”

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Peter Herman8:07 pm 12 Jul 23

Instead of letting the guilty people get away with this disgraceful robodebt let them suffer like the voters of Australua did
Name and shame them
They don’t deserve to be spared

Stephen Saunders7:05 pm 12 Jul 23

I see no reason to doubt, the seven APS names already published in Guardian, including Campbell.

I see no reason to doubt, that Albanese has the legal power to sack Campbell, if only he chose to.

Presumably, he stays his hand, because Campbell is also recommended for prosecution, so meanwhile she gets close to 20K a week, just to really annoy gutted victims who failed to “engage” with the shakedown.

Gardening leave with no pay, that is the minimum me thinks

Macquariephil1:28 pm 12 Jul 23

I hope I am wrong. However I see all the signs of the public service going into self-serving damage control mode. There may be some token heads on a pike, some cosmetic organisational reorganisation to the cost of lower and mid level staff. But, there won’t be meaningful accountability or cultural change.

In my opinion the issues for the APS, sadly, go back to the Hawke Government reforms: abolishing the Public Service Board, and putting Departmental Secretaries onto contracts, with tenure at the whim of the Minister.

These reforms, and the advent of real power in ministerial offices have allowed successive governments to undermine and hollow our the Public Service, turning it into a political government service. The APS Code of Conduct and Values say so.

The result has been an extensive list of consequential government failure.

We can’t turn back time. However we need real reform. The Public Service Commission needs genuinely independent oversight. Not a return of an all powerful Board, but a body that has genuine power to independently advise Ministers, agencies and the public about APS management, including hiring and firing of agency heads.

The first tasks of an oversight board would be to advise on reform following robodebt, scandals like PWC, and the many cases of significant agency underperformance.

Phil, I agree with you 100%.
The Robodebt catastrophe was something driven by the Ministers involved, and willingly enacted by the departmental Secretaries they placed (prior to Renee Leon). Successive layers directly below supported delivery either to appease or to survive. Staff further down the ladder had little choice but to watch it unfold like a car crash.

For the Public Service to be able to truely operate apolitically, the nexus between Department head and Minister/Government-of-the-day must be severed.

Agreed. We need to stop the politicisation of the public service and STOP the bullies and bullying within the APS. It is unbelievably toxic. About 80% if the APS are caught up in either bullying or just plain BS. Around 20% decent, normal cultured humans. This ratio needs to change. Measurements of culture should be done by external agencies, independently run. Get the Ombudsman to be in charge of the APS Workforce culture surveys.

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