The robodebt royal commission hearings came to an end on Friday. Over the past four months, they have delivered a telling portrait of unaccountable government power.
As they look back on a mass of limited recollections, missing paper and inaction, what are key things Australians should take away?
The first phase of the inquiry was marked by bombshell revelations. Two iron curtains that protect government – legal professional privilege and cabinet confidentiality – were pulled back.
In the opening week, we learned:
In 2014, Department of Social Services’ legal advice on robodebt was a flat “no”. New legislation was needed to raise debts by averaging annual income. Robodebt went ahead without it.
In 2017, after enormous public outcry, external legal advice was not sought. Instead, a government lawyer reported feeling “pressure” to produce heavily qualified legal advice. This unpersuasive advice was then used to justify the scheme.
In 2018, the Department of Social Services, received advice dubbed “catastrophic” for the scheme. It stayed in draft, something lawyers admitted was a common practice.
Confronted by this, Commissioner Catherine Holmes had only two words: “I’m appalled”.
Without the commission, the standard rules on transparency would have applied. Australians would never have known any of it.
Robodebt is about so much more than just the absence of law. After years of semantics and political rhetoric, the hearings confirmed robodebt as baseless, ethically indefensible policy.
Holmes rebuked the program as “amateurish, rushed and disastrous”.
The core concept at the heart of robodebt was the tactical imposition of administrative burden on vulnerable people. Instead of the previous system, where evidence would be gathered direct from employers, the onus of proof was reversed.
The hearings revealed the department’s own budget assumed most people would give up. Hundreds of thousands would effectively cop an averaged and inaccurate debt.
Robodebt should never again be framed as a technological glitch or a legal oversight. It was the active and direct exploitation of people’s vulnerability. The department’s own research into the letters sent confirmed they generated terror and confusion. We learnt it even held modelling that debts raised under the programme were inflated.
We have built a dense, highly conditional welfare system, which concentrates enormous, life-changing powers in the hands of government decision-makers. The hearings delivered a portrait of a system warped by imbalances of power and a lack of access to justice.
So what of the politicians? Their appearances had one clear theme: they positioned themselves as the victims of the Australian Public Service.
For hours, we cycled through the same phrases: “I did not know”. “I was not told”. “I was entitled to rely on public servants”.
In our Westminster system, a minister is responsible for the actions of their department. The hearings have revealed that to be abstract fiction rather than functional reality. While a storm of suffering and advocacy raged, politicians and their offices didn’t ask even the simplest questions about the core issue.
What they focused on was seeking political benefit – right from the earliest press releases, trumpeting the arrival of a “strong welfare cop on the beat”. In the pursuit of this political brand, we saw egregious actions ranging from deliberately evading questions to approving the release of the personal information to “correct the record”.
Moving past individuals, our focus needs to be on tackling the broader ecosystem that produced “welfare cop”. The phrase speaks powerfully to how we have fallen into a social security system driven by shortcut cultural images, rather than on supporting work, families and care.
Taken advantage of
Most people will not have had time to follow the commission. Media coverage, predictably, surged for “politician days”. They missed the most powerful and important contributions.
Victims of the scheme spoke up for what should matter, what a social security system needs to protect and deliver. Sandra Bevan, a single mother of four boys, who works in disability support, told us about the experience of correctly reporting income and not being listened to.
It was so traumatic that she swore she would “never access Centrelink benefits ever again”. Bevan is a powerful reminder of where courage, strength and leadership are found in our society.
In the final block, another victim, Matthew Thompson, summed up what he felt drove robodebt:
It seems to me that the powerful people are always able to take advantage of vulnerable people, as the gap between rich and poorer increases still. And no matter how many royal commissions we have, that always seems to be the case. And I hope this royal commission can change that.
Holmes could only give a simple human response. Somehow, all at once, it spoke to her commitment, the limits on her role, the history of royal commissions and the reality of the system as it currently is:
I’m afraid I can’t promise you that. But we’ll do what we can.
In a room in Brisbane, we have learnt of the scale of problems in front of us. Only a broader societal change, not just a royal commission, will ever deliver the change we need.