If ever there was an instance of hideous failing in government policy and its cowardly implementation by the public service, the cruel, inept and vicious Robodebt program would have to be one of them.
Robodebt was a scheme developed by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and submitted as a budget measure by Scott Morrison, a former Minister for Social Services, in 2015. Its express purpose was to recover claimed “overpayments” from welfare recipients, stretching back to the 2010–11 financial year.
The automated scheme used a deeply flawed “income averaging” method to assess income and benefit entitlements, yielding inaccurate results. The assumption was that recipients had stable income through the financial year. The scheme also failed to comply with the income calculation provisions of the Social Security Act 1991.
The results were disastrous for those in receipt of crude, harrying debt notices. The scheme led to various instances of suicide. It oversaw a concerted government assault on the poor and vulnerable.
A demonising campaign was waged by former human services minister Alan Tudge. Media outlets such as A Current Affair were more than happy to provide a platform. “We will find you,” Tudge told the program, adding “We will track you down, and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison”.
The policy eventually caught the ire of the courts, which ruled the scheme unlawful.
That, along with a change in government, eventually led to the setting up of a royal commission into the scheme, whose findings were released by Commissioner Catherine Holmes on July 7.
The 1000 pages make for grim reading.
Morrison was appointed Minister for Social Services in December 2014. Wishing to make an impression he, unusually, held direct meetings with Kathryn Campbell, secretary of the department, to tease out what would become the Robodebt proposal.
Concern from legal officers and senior staff within the Department of Social Services (DSS) about the legal compliance of the program were ignored or dismissed.
The Royal Commission rejected “as untrue Mr Morrison’s evidence that he was told that income averaging as contemplated in the Executive Minute was an established practice and a ‘foundational way’ in which DHS worked”.
The New Policy Proposal (NPP) that arose was at odds with the legal position of the DSS stating that legislative change was required to implement the new income averaging approach.
Morrison did not make any inquiries as to the reasons for that reversal. He “allowed Cabinet to be misled because he did not make that obvious inquiry”, the commissioner noted.
The necessary information — that the scheme would require legislative and policy change to permit the use of income averaging — was not supplied. Morrison accordingly “failed to meet his ministerial responsibility … to ensure that [the scheme] was lawful”.
Tudge comes in for special mention for his “use of information about social security recipients in the media”. This could only be regarded as an abuse of power.
After knowing that the scheme had claimed the lives of at least two people from suicide, Tudge also “failed to undertake a comprehensive review of the Scheme, including its fundamental features, or to consider whether its impacts were so harmful to vulnerable recipients that it should cease”.
The commissioner found that Christian Porter, a later Minister for Social Services, “could not rationally have been satisfied of the legality of the Scheme on the basis of his general knowledge of the NPP process, when he did not have actual knowledge of the content of the NPP, and had no idea whether it had said anything about the practice of income averaging”.
Stuart Robert, the minister in charge of Robodebt in its final days, also cuts a less than impressive figure.
The Commission found that Robert had not unequivocally instructed the secretary of human services in November 2019 “to cease income averaging as a sole or partial basis for debt raising”. It was “reasonable to suppose that Mr Robert still hoped to salvage the Robodebt Scheme in some respects”.
The Commissioner found that senior DSS and DHS officers failed to give Morrison “frank and full advice before and after the development of the NPP”, the result of “pressure to deliver the budget expectations of the government and by Mr Morrison, as the Minister for Social Services, communicating the direction to develop the NPP through the Executive Minute”.
Kathryn Campbell, DHS Secretary, stood out. “Her response to staff concerns, including those about income averaging and debt accuracy, was not to seek external assurance, or even to make inquiries about the matter with her chief counsel or other departmental lawyers.”
Instead, she told staff on January 25, 2017 that there would be “no change to how we assess income or calculate and recover debts”.
The DHS was also rebuked for its approach to the media’s coverage of the scheme’s defects. In 2017, when Robodebt came under withering scrutiny, the department responded “to criticism by systematically repeating the same narrative, underpinned by a set of talking points and standard lines”.
The bureaucrats acted as “gatekeepers” keen on “getting it [the media criticism] shut down as quickly as possible”, the commissioner wrote.
The names of the Robodebt architects and apologists should be blazoned upon a monument of execration for time immemorial.
Even now its perpetrators are resorting to extravagant acts of hand washing. Campbell continues to receive a salary from her advisory role on AUKUS to the Defence Department.
For Opposition leader Peter Dutton, who can only concede that “mistakes” had been made, the ideology of punishing welfare recipients remains central.
[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]