Australians must learn from Robodebt

We will put a strong welfare cop on the beat. We will be stopping the rorts. With these slogans, then minister for social services Scott Morrison launched the Employment Income Matching effort, commonly known as ‘‘robo-debt'', in 2015.

Last week, a royal commission began exploring just how a scheme that once promised $3.9 billion in savings turned out to be a landmark scandal in public administration.

Every Australian has a stake in learning from a scheme that is about to pass into history. All but the most privileged Australians have to place their trust in government at key moments in our lives. We find ourselves hoping for the NDIS plan for our child, the aged care package for our parent. All of us need to know that our government's approaches can be called out and tested against basic principles of consistency and fairness. The persistence of robodebt across five years underlines that the rule of law arrives too late or not at all for many everyday Australians.

When they hear the word ‘‘robodebt'', Australians should not see politicians. We need to see the young woman who hid the debt letter in terror of her partner. The Townsville tradie who cancelled his JobSeeker payment and lived in poverty fearing further debts. The parent whose world was crashing down, trying to fake a smile as their children played with them.

Too often, lawyers or advocates help one person experiencing injustice but are left wondering: what happens to those who do not complain? Those without resources? Life-changing government decisions should never reflect our ability to argue back, our financial resources or our sheer exhaustion. This royal commission can call for a forceful Advocate-General for our social security system. Such an office can work with the legal community and onthe-ground advocacy groups to ensure legal issues are never disappeared again.

Next, we must bust open the black box that hides so much of our government, its internal policy and practices. Greater transparency is about preventing grievous harm happening in our communities. The road to robo-debt was paved with secrecy. The operational blueprint outlining when cases would be averaged was never published until a court order. Services Australia never tracked the cases it averaged. When averaging was ruled unlawful, it took 649 staff five months to find the 433,000 legally baseless ‘‘debts''.

At the royal commission, the secrets keep flowing. Last week we heard there were warnings within the Department of Social Services that the scheme could be unlawful in 2014. The commission heard of a 2018 ‘‘draft'' legal advice warning of a lack of legal foundation for the scheme. But then we learnt of a practice whereby such advice could be kept in ‘‘draft'' form and not given any status by the department.

Only a few days into gathering evidence, Commissioner Catherine Holmes said she was ‘‘appalled'' at that. Evidence has not been heard yet on whether senior leaders, political or bureaucratic - were aware of these warnings. The testimony of another commission witness raises even deeper questions. This official's reaction when he first heard the robo-debt concept was to dub it ‘‘unethical'' and a form of ‘‘speculative invoicing''. But in the rush to make savings, voices such as his were lost.

The robo-debt system was simply assumed into being from a rushed pilot. As a nation we literally banked on social exclusion. The result was a massive Jenga tower of unlawful debt, impervious to accountability.

This royal commission is a chance to reject the culture and mindsets that hurt so many people. We must confront how our social security system is scripting lives of disempowered suffering instead of supporting safety, work, families and care in our country.

This article was first published in The Age Opinion section, Every Australian has a stake in learning from the robo-debt scandal

Dr Darren O'Donovan is senior lecturer in administrative law at La Trobe Law School.

Media: Courtney Carthy, 208 187