Robodebt’s architects suffer temporary embarrassment, its victims are gone forever

The final block of hearings for the Robodebt Royal Commission has closed. We have heard from the victims, who have bravely consented to be publicly dragged back through their trauma at the hands of a diabolical program. We have heard from the people at the coalface of its implementation, forced to reckon with the divide between delusion and reality. And we have heard from the architects, those charged with the responsibility to provide essential social services to all Australians, and who instead left us with a decade-long legacy of abject failure and wilful neglect on a multi-faceted grand-scale of human pain and suffering.

We have listened to how the custodians of Robodebt irresponsibly nursed the malicious scheme through troubled waters, how they patched up its leaky holes as it started to go wrong, and deflected in unison as it all fell apart. Since the commission began, we have seen its senior executives, government portfolio holders and interlocutors block and compartmentalise, packing down everything with wavy palms in the air, and leaving awkward silences that echoed through the shuddering hearts of those watching on. 

The fourth and final block of the commission opened with heartbreaking testimony from Jeniffer Miller, the mother of one of the victims. After all she had been through, she demanded a new precedent to be set in public office, for those who work within to act again with integrity and serve the people, pleading with them to “do your job and do it properly“. Jeannie-Marie Blake, a proud and longstanding DHS and Services Australia employee for over 20 years, would later appear, emotionally speaking about the “incorrectness” of the entire process and the unapproachable managers that barked orders to ensure its delivery.

Between the return of the contract lawyers and more bag handlers from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the return of the Deputy Secretaries and vice-CEOs and the former Directors, we also heard stories from legal aid representatives about the trauma of theses brutal measures and the PTSD of clients impacted by Robodebt. We heard class action plaintiffs and low-ranking DHS employees outraged about the incredible damage inflicted on people they spent their careers caring for.

When former chief counsels, directors and managers returned, their earlier statements seemed even more ridiculous in the wake of the visceral testimony of those pretty much ripped apart by this horrendous program. When the DSS’ chief counsel was asked if he appreciated that the continuation of Robodebt would have consequences for recipients, he replied, “I’m not sure my mind turned to that”. When asked about emerging media questioning the legality of the scheme, another former DHS General Counsel Matthew Roser couldn’t recall if it occurred to him that he should be doing his job and checking into its unlawfulness. All these logical lawyers seemed to have trouble recalling what people like Jeannie-Marie Blake had burned into their memories.

The middle managers and the NCO subordinates gave answers akin to David Brent around their lack of ability to know what they were seeing, and happily submitted their credentials that qualified their inability to taste any of the evil nuances of this Soylent Green-like program. The former DHS Branch Manager Scott Britton insisted he was told Robodebt was “probably” illegal, but not quite enough for him to consider it “explicitly”, so he bluntly stated he had no reason to check the legal advice from the Department of Social Services (DSS). Plausible deniability trickled up the mountain until it couldn’t be denied by gravity anymore.

The second week of the hearing’s finale saw Stewart Robert take the stand. Robert, a minister that longed for low-profile portfolios in the shadows, represented the last of the assorted LNP senior members that had put their muddy hooves on the Social Services portfolio. The final captain of the quadrella of ministerial incompetence that oversaw this techno-neofeudal nightmare, Robert made explosive testimony admitting to false public statements, all in the name of defending government policy.

Former PM Malcolm Turnbull appeared like a beardless and boring version of Gandalf, the man who carelessly oversaw the halflings that ended up knocking him off. Malcolm Turnbull appeared before the commission with jaw locked in perma-grin, the same mug he flashed to the country when he was the Prime Minister. Turnbull said he “never turned his mind” to the fact that the scheme could be illegal, his face sometimes frozen in a state of suspended smirk, as he quaffed his way through the proceedings. It was fitting that the most vapid and forgetful modern Prime Minister since Gorton, the man who helped to drown the last of the Menzies-era tenets of classical liberalism in the back trough, appeared so nonchalantly detached from any sense of responsibility.

Robodebt was honed by LNP stooges under Abbott and painfully deployed by Dunning-Kruger miscreants under Turnbull. The scheme was a willfully callous and heartless program inflicted on some of the most vulnerable Australians. For many on the ground, Robodebt was a punch in the face, these hearings sting in the cold air environment of austerity thrust upon us. In grave economic circumstances where Centrelink payments are still around $46 per day, Robodebt is more emblematic of systemic failures and endemic meanness plaguing a generation of political leaders and senior public servants.

The commission would ultimately return to Kathryn Campbell, Robodebt Tzar, to round off the last days of the hearing. The captain of the team, and a new $900k Labor appointed AUKUS advisor with no reports, told the commission that fairness didn’t cross her mind when she was scurrying around keeping Robodebt going. When pressed if any of it was fair, she insisted, like the rest of them, that “it was legal” instead. After all the rope-a-dope in her time on the stand, Justin Greggery finally drew the strings, and she admitted signing off on a policy brief as Secretary that lied to Cabinet about income averaging.

As Turnbull’s statement embodies the lack of concern from the LNP, Campbell’s responses represent the abrogation of duty by those paid handsomely to serve in the interests of Australians. It was the obligation of Campbell to corral unreasonable requests from a radical government, as it was on the directors and managers to raise issues and trip alarms, and the role of millions of dollars worth of contract and government lawyers to call its illegality into question as a matter of emergency. As people like Campbell get new gigs on more coin awarded by a new government elected to stop corruption, as the former Robodebt architects sit in diagonally plumb roles in all sorts of well paying and publicly consequential positions, what are the rest of us to think at the conclusion of this harrowing Royal Commission? 

We have met the victims, the people at the coalface, the officers who were hamstrung, and seen their palpable grief on display. And then we have seen the complete lack of empathy, responsibility or accountability from the scheme’s architects. Australians have come to understand the multilevel systematic omnishambles that is the Social Services sector, and met the multitude of those jointly involved in executing one of the most tragic pieces of legislation in history. As all the moving parts are disassembled, and the senior public servants, lawyers, ministers and witnesses are shuffled into the archive boxes of Canberra’s collective amnesia, the human toll is forever. 

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