Royal Commission reveals the unlawful and cruel nature of the Coalition’s Robodebt scheme

Royal Commission reveals the unlawful and cruel nature of the Coalition’s Robodebt scheme

In a significant development following last week’s release of the New South Wales ICAC report on serious corruption in public office, the Robodebt Royal Commission Report has now been made public. Similar to the ICAC findings, this report carries immense weight and significance. Spanning 990 pages, the report contains 57 recommendations and includes a ‘sealed section’ detailing referrals for civil and criminal prosecution, which will be directed towards the new National Anti-Corruption Commission. The identities of individuals mentioned in the sealed section will remain undisclosed until the NACC determines if charges should be filed.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, commenting on the release of the Robodebt Royal Commission Report, acknowledged the courage displayed by vulnerable Australians in the face of injustice, hardship, and grief. He sharply contrasted their bravery with those who attempted to shift blame, suppress the truth, and perpetuate the shocking harm caused by the Robodebt scheme. Described as a gross betrayal and a human tragedy, the scheme targeted Australians who often did not owe any debts. It was an illegal and wrongful pursuit of debt recovery that should never have taken place.

Under the previous Liberal–National Coalition government, the Robodebt scheme unlawfully raised a staggering $1.76 billion in debts from approximately 433,000 Australians. The consequences of this tragedy extended beyond financial hardship, causing stress, anxiety, and even financial destitution. Alarmingly, over 2,000 individuals lost their lives to suicide and stress, after receiving Robodebt notifications, underscoring the severity of the program’s impact. The report reveals that for over four years, Liberal ministers disregarded or dismissed repeated concerns raised by victims, public servants, community organizations, and legal experts.

The Robodebt Royal Commission Report characterises the scheme as a “crude and cruel” mechanism that needlessly traumatised people under the mere and remote suspicion of owed money. It highlights the costly failure of public administration, both in human and economic terms. The report resonates with those affected by the Robodebt system, the families of the deceased, witnesses who testified during the Royal Commission, and advocates who tirelessly brought attention to the failures of the program over the past five years.

The report’s release marks a turning point in the fight for justice and accountability. While much remains to be explored, the sealed section has become a subject of intense speculation. Although the names within it remain unknown, it is believed that at least three public servants and four ministers may be implicated. The potential laying of charges poses a delicate situation for the government, which must exercise caution, to avoid jeopardising any future legal actions against these people. However, the evidence presented thus far suggests criminal activities involving senior public servants or Ministers of the Crown, further intensifying the urgency for justice.

Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten, outlining his response to the report, emphasises how the previous government and senior public servants betrayed the trust of the nation and its citizens. The report’s assessment of the Robodebt scandal as the worst chapter of public administration, underlines the extent of the breach of citizens’ trust.

Shorten’s focus lies firmly on the victims, acknowledging the 433,000 vulnerable Australians identified by the Royal Commission and the countless others who were unjustly targeted. These individuals were subjected to a system of institutionalised abuse, wherein they received unfounded debt notices, often leading to court battles or demands from debt collection agencies. The reversal of the onus of proof and the treatment of citizens as guilty until proven innocent further compounded the harm they endured. Moreover, those who dared to raise concerns faced vile political attacks from the Coalition government.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes, who oversaw the Royal Commission, delivered a scathing judgment on the Robodebt scheme, deeming it unfair and illegal and also expressed astonishment at the lack of interest displayed in ensuring the scheme’s legality. The report also criticises the Coalition government for incompetence and cowardice, and for former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison for deliberately allowing federal Cabinet to be misled.

The Coalition parties faces criticism at their attempts to deflect blame

Former government minister Senator Bridget McKenzie has attempted to shift blame onto the public service, while Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton has accused the government of strategically timing the report’s release to coincide with the Fadden byelection.

McKenzie placed responsibility on public servants, stating that the assumption made by Cabinet is that proposed measures are legal under Australian law, and emphasised the need for “frank and fearless” advice from public servants to ensure informed decision-making on behalf of the Australian people, even though it was clear through her involvement with the infamous Sportsrorts affair, that McKenzie and the former Coalition government made a habit of avoiding advice provided to them by public servants. However, this attempt to absolve the government of responsibility has drawn criticism, given the report’s damning findings.

Dutton’s response to the report was primarily based on accusing the government of political maneuvering by releasing it during the Fadden byelection, even though the dates for the release of the Royal Commission report had been set even before member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, had announced his resignation from Parliament. Dutton’s other diversionary tactics included raising a wide range of unrelated issues, such as nuclear energy, and defending a racist and controversial anti-Voice to Parliament cartoon which appeared in the Australian Financial Review: the intention was clear: to avoid discussing the illegal and borderline criminal behaviour associated with the Robodebt scheme that was implemented by the Liberal Party.

The report’s findings pose a significant challenge to Dutton and the Liberal Party. His attempt to change the conversation reflects a desire to distance himself from the scandalous program that should never have been implemented by the party. The report’s revelations confirm that the advice provided at the time clearly indicated the illegality of the scheme, making the government’s actions inexcusable.

This latest development should be seen as a final nail in the coffin for the far-right wing faction that has dominated the Liberal Party since 2005. Calls for resignations – and legal action – from within the party, particularly for those associated with the Robodebt scandal, have grown louder. The report’s findings have also prompted demands for an overhaul of the Liberal Party’s recruitment policies, ensuring that individuals lacking ethical integrity and competency are not given the opportunity to hold public office.

The past decade has been marred by mediocrity and ethical shortcomings within the Liberal Party. Australia cannot afford a repetition of such a disgraceful period. It is essential for all political parties – including Liberal, Labor, National, and Greens – to reflect on their selection processes and ensure that individuals driven by self-interest and lacking moral standards are kept away from public office. While a diverse range of ideas in Parliament is essential, it is equally important to hold parties accountable and prevent the ascent of individuals who do not serve the best interests of the nation.

As Australia grapples with the aftermath of the Robodebt Royal Commission Report, a collective effort is needed to restore faith in the political system. It is crucial to return to an era where public officials driven solely by personal gain are considered outliers, swiftly dismissed from ministries, and regarded as a source of amusement rather than a serious threat. Restoring this approach will pave the way for a more accountable and ethical political landscape.

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About David Lewis 11 Articles
David Lewis is co-presenter of the New Politics Australia podcast, historian, musicologist, musician and political scientist based in Sydney. His lecturing and research interests include roots music, popular music, Australian, UK and US politics and crime fiction. He has published in Music Forum Australia, Eureka Street, Quadrant, Crikey and has edited several books.