Robodebt victims need justice, not platitudes

July 12, 2023
The rogues responsible for Robodebt are unlikely to be punished. Image: Green Left

The Robodebt Royal Commission has cast immense shame on former Coalition ministers. “Reprehensible”, “cruel” and “illegal” are some of the words used to describe the scheme.

However, these jokers are shameless!

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “I reject completely each of the findings which are critical of my involvement in authorising the scheme and are adverse to me”.

Former human services minister Alan Tudge said: “I strongly reject the Commission’s comments of the way I used the media and that I had abused my power in doing so”.

Tudge, former Attorney General Christian Porter and former Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert have all denied they received a notice from the Royal Commission indicating that they are named in the report’s sealed section. Conspicuously, Morrison has not.

The sealed section “recommends the referral of individuals for civil action or criminal prosecution” and is not public so as “not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecution”.

While the Royal Commission report damns all those responsible, it is easier to target public servants rather than politicians for formal punishment.

The Australian Financial Review reported that “at least eight senior public servants [are] believed to have been implicated” in the sealed section.

The Guardian reported, however, that “it is not yet clear which [public servants], if any, will face further consequences”. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that public sector agency heads are “empowered to take immediate action” against public servants and he is “very confident that they will”.

No doubt, public service officers are responsible for wrongdoing but, equally certainly, primary responsibility lies with politicians who devised the scheme. As Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes said: “Culture is set from the top down”.

Despite plenty of calls for Morrison to resign from parliament so far he has refused to (even though he appears to have an AUKUS-related weapons’ corporation job in Britain lined up). Simply resigning for such egregious crimes is no punishment.

Ever the warrior for the billionaire class, Morrison pushed the scheme in 2015 even though he was advised it may not be legal. He didn’t want to test that in law. Instead, he pressed the button.

Unsurprisingly, Robodebt’s victims were disproportionately the poor and vulnerable. Many paid “debts” they did not owe. Many suffered trauma and distress. In some cases, lives were lost.

Contrast the barbs against those receiving welfare payments to government lenience towards businesses which rorted JobKeeper and corporate tax avoiders.

Tudge, in particular, used private information about individual welfare recipients to neutralise media criticism of Robodebt. In the words of the Commission, this was an “abuse of power” which was “all the more reprehensible in view of the power imbalance between the minister and the cohort of people upon whom it would reasonably be expected to have the most impact”.

We voted the Coalition out of power: that is step one towards achieving justice. The Royal Commission has shown the spotlight on the crimes of Robodebt and that is step two.

The next steps are a bit more complicated.

The report made the “reluctant conclusion” not to recommend systemic compensation to the victims (although individuals may have grounds to sue ministers). Instead, it suggested, without making a formal recommendation, lifting “the rate at which social security benefits are paid”.

Raising JobSeeker must be a priority, irrespective of Robodebt.

Questioned about this Government Services Minister Bill Shorten implied on ABC's 7.30 on July 11 that Labor’s marginal increases in JobSeeker and Commonwealth Rent Assistance were adequate.

But the Antipoverty Centre has highlighted that Labor is still “pursuing more than one million people for ‘debts’ worth $5 billion,” according to Services Australia evidence to Senate estimates last December.

The Commissioner is right to call for an end to the stigmatisation of welfare recipients, stating: “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”.

This Royal Commission will be meaningless unless Labor makes the necessary systemic changes. These include lifting all welfare payments above the poverty line and indexing them to maintain real value. Making corporations pay their fair share of tax and scrapping the Stage tax cuts would easily cover compensation owned to those whose lives have been made hell by being wrongly told they owed Centrelink.  

[Alex Bainbridge is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]

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