The long-awaited robodebt royal commission report landed today, making searing adverse findings against both politicians and bureaucrats.
Key individuals are denounced in stark moral terms: for venality, cowardice and callous disregard.
The report contains the statement that “on the evidence before the commission, elements of the tort of misfeasance in public office appear to exist”.
The victims and key advocates who have laboured in obscurity, through days when no listened, can now know they were right all along.
The report leaves a core question unanswered: will anyone ever face consequences for what happened? Robodebt Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes’ decision to keep referrals confidential should be perceived as victim-centred.
A royal commission is the last fail-safe of our democracy, the one way we open doors those in power would prefer to keep shut.
It’s a mechanism that is particularly precious to the marginalised, those failed by the media and party political cycles.
The confidentiality serves to highlight the elemental values that were denied to people during robodebt itself: procedural fairness, ethics and attention to proof.
On compensation for the victims, the report states:
The administration costs of a scheme which addressed all the different ways in which people were harmed by the Scheme and examined their circumstances to establish what compensation was appropriate in each case would be astronomic, given the numbers involved. A better use of the money would be to lift the rate at which social security benefits are paid.
Holmes’ challenge for Australians
The report leans heavily into the importance of pursuing a deeper change in our political life. This reflects the arguments of advocates that even if it had been lawful, robodebt was still a scandal.
The commissioner’s call to consider raising the rate of JobSeeker directs us to the bigger picture. Welfare advocates in this country can now forcefully critique any government program that trades on stigma or vulnerability and ignores real-life suffering.
That will now forever be known as robodebt governance.
As the report reads:
politicians need to lead a change in social attitudes to people receiving welfare payments. The evidence before the commission was that fraud in the welfare system was miniscule, but that is not the impression one would get from what ministers responsible for social security payments have said over the years. Anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes.
The report reflects that Australia’s constitution places all its trust on responsible politicians and a vibrant parliamentary culture.
The law does not offer the protections the public often thinks it does, and plays an outsized role in public debate. Across more than 900 pages, the key take away for social security recipients is effectively: find a way to get political power and cultural influence, any way you can.
‘Robodebt’: the power of a word
It was confronting to watch today as politicians and media picked over the findings of the report, when it took so long to have the wrongs of robodebt noticed by anyone.
The report detailed:
The beginning of 2017 was the point at which Robodebt’s unfairness, probable illegality and cruelty became apparent. It should then have been abandoned or revised drastically, and an enormous amount of hardship and misery (as well as the expense the government was so anxious to minimise) would have been averted.
Instead the path taken was to double down, to go on the attack in the media against those who complained and to maintain the falsehood that in fact the system had not changed at all. The government was, the DHS and DSS ministers maintained, acting righteously to recoup taxpayers’ money from the undeserving.
My thoughts were with the #notmydebt volunteers. With transparency advocate Justin Warren who spent years seeking the very documents that could have stopped this long ago.
To Asher Wolf, Lyndsey Jackson, Amy Patterson and the forever anonymous volunteers who built the very word on everyone’s lips. The people who were told it was disrespectful and wrong to even use the word “robodebt”.
Change comes from the outside
Australians carry as many ideas about their government as the politicians who run it. Robodebt stands as a warning against rose-tinted visions of the rule of law, or any idea our institutions are inherently self-correcting.
The politicians have taken this report into their world. We must always remember the spaces it actually comes from. How social security recipients found the power to make this all happen. Commissioner Holmes has named that as the path to real change.
Dr Darren O'Donovan is senior lecturer in administrative law at La Trobe Law School.
Media: Courtney Carthy-O'Neill, email@example.com +61 487 448 734