Robodebt was a Morrison fiasco at every stage (Peter Van Onselen, The Australian, 21.11.20)

Nov 25, 2020

The buck should stop with the PM, but he won’t be held to account. With summer just around the corner, this week’s $1.2 billion settlement of the Robodebt class action has shone a light on government failings.

Scott Morrison and his team have been coated in Teflon since the pandemic struck. A grateful nation has given its incumbent leaders the benefit of the doubt as we look around the world and see abject failure in handling the coronavirus elsewhere.

But such positivity shouldn’t blind us to poor conduct, and the Robodebt disaster is without doubt the worst example of maladministration and callous indifference to vulnerable Australians since the Coalition took office in 2013.

The Coalition is a certainty to win the next election despite a long list of deficiencies across the policy and political spectrum. Among them: the sports rorts scandal; Angus Taylor’s still unexplained use of a forged document to attack Sydney City Council; water buybacks along the Murray-Darling Basin that simply don’t pass the pub test; a $30 million taxpayer purchase of land for Sydney’s second airport at 10 times the official valuation, bought from a Liberal Party donor no less.

None of these examples of dubious practices is as bad as what we’ve witnessed when it comes to Robodebt, however. And none of them directly lands at the feet of the Prime Minister the way the Robodebt saga does.

The Coalition instituted automated payments to collect what it hoped would be billions of dollars of overpayments to welfare recipients. It justified the practice by claiming Labor had done similar in the past. That is a lie, unless comparing oranges and apples is legitimate. Labor never used automated payments for welfare recipients the way Robodebt func­tioned, which assumed guilt, not innocence, and put the onus on the welfare recipient to prove their case for a reversal. We are talking about people whose vulnerability makes doing so even harder than it might be for the rest of us.

The Robodebt scheme removed human checks from the system, completely automating the process on a scale never seen before. Red flags were raised but the government ignored them. Income averaging was used, which by definition means many vulnerable people automatically would be called on to return payments. The courts struck it out.

Anyone with half a brain knows welfare recipients don’t have bundles of cash lying around. Hence, when thousands upon thousands of notices went out demanding repayments and threatening to cut off people’s welfare if they didn’t, the mental anguish felt was off the charts. Some committed suicide, and many of their families were convinced they did so because of the stress caused by the Robodebt scheme.

This is a shameful moment in Australian history.

Rather than admit its mistake as soon as it came to light, the government fought tooth and nail to defend its missteps, settling only at the last minute before the court case was due to start. The financial cost: $1.2 billion, a record class action settlement.

Now for the most important part of this sorry story — why hasn’t anyone been held to account? The answer is simple. If one head has to roll for what has transpired it is that of Morrison. That won’t happen.

Morrison was the social ser­vices minister when Robodebt was conceived. He charged his junior minister, Alan Tudge, to prosecute the case for the capricious prac­tices Morrison wanted put in place. When the quantum of cash that the Finance Department hoped to collect from Robodebt was realised, the eyes of Treasury lit up. It was just what the bean counters ordered as the government sought to return the budget to balance and make political mileage from doing so. By that time Morrison was the nation’s treasurer, right when Treasury was putting the squeeze on the Department of Social Services to deliver the promised windfall on offer from Robodebt.

The surplus was central to the Coalition’s re-election strategy, featuring in campaign ads and rhetorically throughout. Within that, the money that Robodebt was to earn was important. With the truth about the scheme’s failures already on show, the government defended itself, didn’t apologise and continued to leave the vulnerable to rot on the vine.

Morrison was Prime Minister by that point, the ultimate beneficiary of the political strategy.

Knowing what we do about the financial cost of Robodebt ($1.2bn) and the toll on people’s lives (even contributing to a loss of life), it is hard to stomach the hypocrisy we see and hear from Morrison. Using the parliament to thunder about former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate authorising a $19,000 purchase of Cartier watches as executive bonuses. Demanding she step down. Hearing the Prime Minister constantly refer to Labor as having blood on its hands because of the handful of lives lost during the home insulation program rollout, even though the royal commission the Coalition called found that the scheme was not responsible for those deaths.

The scale of devastation from Robodebt dwarfs any and all such failures. Yet not one head will roll because the only one that should is Morrison’s: he is the glue that held together every poor decision on Robodebt for years. He won’t sack himself. Morrison has barely apologised for what happened.

US president Harry S Truman had a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here”. You will never find such a sign on Morrison’s desk. I can’t be sure Morrison knew the extent of the problem he was unleashing when he contrived Robodebt. More likely he had no idea.

Marketing, not public policy, is his shtick. I suspect he saw the chance to hit welfare recipients with bills to help the budget bottom line. A win-win for a Liberal government that doesn’t get votes from those on welfare but does score political points for its management of the economy. A chance to look tough. More red meat for the party’s base.

But surely on reflection the Prime Minister realises how low he went. How much damage he caused. How many lives he ruined. Maybe not. It’s not as if this devout Christian ever took the time to reflect on his asylum-seeker policies in that way.

For operators such as Morrison who’ve lived their entire adult lives inside the partisan world of politics, they know politics is a blood sport, which means sometimes blood gets spilt.

Peter van Onselen is political editor at the Ten Network and a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University. This article is  posted with the approval of the writer.

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