Robo Debt shows we need an Independent Inquiry into AUKUS

Jul 20, 2023
Sign of Centrelink and Medicare Office in Chatswood.SYD

The Royal Commission into Robo-debt has provided significant insights into how a cavalier government can ignore fundamental processes of good governance by ignoring accepted standards of decision making to pursue its ideological agenda.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes is to be congratulated for her comprehensive consideration of the Robo-debt scheme which “lacked a legal framework and revealed dishonesty and corruption”. Her incisive questioning of witnesses further identified that some individuals are to be referred for criminal proceedings.

The Albanese Government must also be commended for acting so promptly to determine why this government-initiated scheme had such a profound impact on so many Australians unfairly targeted simply because they are financially dependent on welfare payments.

The fifty-seven recommendations of this comprehensive report have sent a welcome and timely reminder to parliamentarians and public servants that they are not immune from Australian law and ethical standards of behaviour. In the last three decades there has been declining reliance on a professional public service to provide “frank and fearless advice” as successive governments have opted to outsource policy guidance to the private sector so that professional public servants have become less influential.

The Royal Commission findings coincide with the establishment of a Federal Integrity Commission long advocated by many parliamentarians and observers of national politics. The exposure of such internal malpractice is a wakeup call to both the parliament and the public service that reform is overdue and governments need to prioritise building a skilled independent public service that can be relied on to provide well researched public policies that fit our legal system.

This Royal Commission is equally significant for restoring faith in government processes, because it has revealed that some of the most vulnerable members of our community have been able to question unfair treatment and demand action to prevent further abuse of government power. This is a most important outcome for those who do not understand nor trust the government. Welfare recipients have been publicly shamed and criticised for many years and too few parliamentarians or public servants have bothered to fully understand their marginal circumstances. Now the Royal Commission has validated their experiences and recommended strong action.

While celebrating this example of Australian democracy at work, it is important to consider another significant political decision made by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison which has not yet received scrutiny for its impact on the Australian community. In 2021 he negotiated a secret defence agreement, AUKUS without the knowledge of his Cabinet colleagues or consideration of the Parliament. This major commitment to join any US /UK led military expedition was then presented as a fait accomplit to a compliant Opposition which wanted to avoid criticism just ahead of the 2022 election.

This opportunist decision making is not impressive, because it reveals that a few nervous politicians were more focused on their electoral futures than the well-being and security of Australia. However, when Anthony Albanese led a new government in May 2022, it was assumed that past poor practices would be replaced by a return to good governance and transparency.

The contrast between how Robo-debt and AUKUS were managed by the incoming government reveals a lack of consistency in Cabinet standards. While Robo-debt received prompt referral to a Royal Commission, AUKUS was enthusiastically embraced by the Prime Minister and Defence Minister. We presume Trade and Foreign Ministers were obliged to follow their leader, though the result is a somewhat confused set of policies. It appears that no member of the Cabinet raised the need for due diligence in examining an outsourced defence policy that undermines our sovereignty and independence. It was not deemed necessary to conduct an internal review to ensure the Cabinet could be fully briefed on all aspects that AUKUS would impose on the government’s responsibilities.

It is reasonable for Australians to know and understand just how AUKUS will affect them. Have the Departments of Defence and Veterans Affairs been required to report on meeting military personnel targets? Has the Department of Health contingency plans in place for visiting nuclear ships? How will the Departments of Infrastructure and Environment manage the transport and disposal of nuclear waste? What economic impact do Treasury and Department of Finance predict as more defence and related expenditure is required?

To date AUKUS concerns and questions from many Australians have been ignored as the government avoids its own high standards of good governance. Its time for an independent review which could reveal exactly what this defence deal means and how we can take back control of informed decision making by Australians for Australians.

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