15 March 2023

Robodebt a shameful policy and now we know why

| Chris Johnson
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Catherine Holmes

Robodebt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC. Image: Screenshot.

Robodebt was a massive failure of policy and we didn’t need a royal commission to tell us that.

The failed scheme caused untold grief, was ruled illegal, crossed boundaries never before breached – and no-one wanted to take responsibility for it.

It is precisely that reason why we did need a royal commission into this tragic debacle that somehow was passed off as policy.

The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has been one of the most valuable inquiries this country has seen.

Most Australians already knew about Robodebt and its automated debt notices alarming so many innocent victims who were denied any form of recourse.

They knew about the huge debts people were getting, which seemed bizarrely unrealistic, disproportionately unfair, and downright wrong.

Few Australians would have escaped hearing of the trauma this program had caused.

It was eventually ruled illegal. Apologies were made. Money was repaid to innocent victims.

But some victims didn’t survive the trauma.

By the time Anthony Albanese established the royal commission late last year, the word Robodebt was part of the vernacular.

But little did we know then just how much this inquiry would uncover.

READ ALSO Legal opinion deliberately left out of ombudsman’s report into Robodebt, Royal Commission hears

Far more than a Senate estimates inquiry could do, the royal commission got to the core of the issue and found out so much about what went wrong.

An estimates committee asking questions of arrogant public service bosses in self-protection mode (with a minister sitting beside them running interference) can only do so much.

In a royal commission there is nowhere for the bureaucrats to hide, no-one to refer a question to, no ministerial protection to be found.

Indeed, there is nowhere for former ministers – former prime ministers even – to hide.

More than 70 witness hearings were held by the inquiry during more than 30 days of evidence delivered across four bulk sessions.

The last of the witnesses to give evidence appeared on Friday.

For the most part, those being questioned were remarkably forthcoming.

Some former ministers and senior bureaucrats, however, true to form, claimed no responsibility whatsoever.

Others did, lamenting the fact that they got it wrong – that they didn’t give this monster of a program the due diligence it required before it was inflicted on an unsuspecting public.

That they didn’t rein it in soon enough.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes and her counsels assisting were dogged and methodical, extracting a stockpile of valuable evidence that might otherwise have never been uncovered.

READ ALSO Robodebt shows just how far APS independence has been eroded, says Podger

All the evidence pointed to a government gung-ho on a new way to raise revenue, determined that nothing would stop it.

Legal advice was ignored or buried. Some briefings were even changed.

Reasonable voices were drowned out.

While the government of the day acted ruthlessly and must be held accountable for this awful stain on the nation’s journey – the Westminster system demands as much – the public service is not blameless in the slightest.

The royal commission heard from one witness after another how certain departmental bosses were intent on pleasing their political masters and protecting their own jobs, to the cost and detriment of all else.

Yes, there are still a good many bullies alive and well and wreaking all manner of unprofessional havoc serving in the top ranks of the Australian Public Service.

And while there has been much speculation throughout the inquiry as to whose heads will roll, it should never be forgotten that the real victims of Robodebt were those innocent Australians who were illegally served false debt recovery accounts.

It is up to the royal commission now to prepare its report and make its recommendations concerning blame, justice, and even possible charges.

Then it is up to the Federal Government as to what it will do with those recommendations.

The evidence is in and it is pretty clear – Robodebt was a shameful policy that was implemented, promoted and defended by people in power who absolutely knew that it was.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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