The royal commission puts it very simply: Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. … It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms. Those costs include lives, unjustified financial hardship for thousands, stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems for many. In the end, an illegal mechanism touted to raise at least $1.8 billion ended up costing the budget $1.7 billion, not counting the below-the-line costs within the government or indeed of the royal commission itself. The report of the commission is an extraordinary document. Its preface deserves pinning to the wall of every minister’s office and of every public servant’s office as well. It reads: It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the Scheme’s legality … and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings.
Truly dismaying was the revelation of dishonesty and collusion to prevent the Scheme’s lack of legal foundation coming to light. It’s only a week since the government pushed the Public Service Amendment Bill through the House over the objections of many on the crossbench, including me. It was precisely what was apparent in the administration, or rather maladministration, of robodebt that led me to believe that the public service legislation was inadequate. Last Thursday, the Public Service Commission revealed that it had decided to investigate the conduct of at least 16 current and former public servants. It’s disappointing but understandable perhaps that these public servants had taken their lead from the then Prime Minister, the member for Cook, in his observations about accountability and his view that the Public Service should be there simply to do the bidding of the executive.
A year before the 2013 election, the then opposition leader and soon to be Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, put it bluntly to the Australian Financial Review, when he declared: … what I’d like to be able to say to the public service is, ‘Look, this is how we think it needs to be done.’ Rather than relying on them to tell us, I’d like to be in a position to tell them on day one. That’s very different from the Westminster standard that the credibility of our democracy depends in large measure on a public service prepared and able to provide frank and fearless advice. In that regard it’s telling that, in his initial response to the findings of the robodebt royal commission, the member for Cook defiantly declared that the inquiry’s findings about him were ‘based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of how government operates’. I don’t believe that’s how Australians expect their government to operate. It’s not just robodebt. Trust in government has been frayed by revelations of secret ministries, pork-barrelling, including sports rorts and car parks, the funnelling of billions to private consultants, the PwC scandal, dodgy offshore processing contracts, and the list goes on. It’s going to take a lot to rebuild public confidence.
The Australian electoral study points out that just 12 per cent of respondents believe the government is being run for all the people, only 30 per cent of Australians trust government and seven out of 10 believe that politicians are more interested in looking after themselves than the community. In regard to the Public Service Amendment Bill, one central question is: what are this government’s plans for strengthening merit based appointments, as recommended by the Thodey review, and to constrain the ability of the Prime Minister of the day to terminate appointments? A clear statement of intent and a timetable for action would be a good start if this government plans to put its money where its mouth is on integrity—as would some clear indications from the government for a timetable to implement the key recommendations of the royal commission’s report about government services: notably, the establishment of a customer experience reference group, which would provide streamlined insight to government regarding the experiences of people accessing income support, and that make more face-to-face customer service support options should be available for vulnerable recipients needing support. Even from the interaction that my office has with frustrated constituents dealing with the variables of Centrelink, the NDIS and other services, the need for this is self-evident, as it is for accepting the commission’s closing observation—considering its difficulty in accessing some key documents—that section 34 of the Commonwealth FOIA Act should be amended to ‘make clear that confidentiality should only be maintained over any cabinet documents or parts of documents where it’s reasonably justified’. Documents should not be labelled cabinet-inconfidence merely to avoid inconvenient disclosure. The faith of the community in the quality of democracy and our public service demand it.