No public interest, it seems, in watching public money burn

The political cynic could easily imagine a string of reasons for ignoring calls for a royal commission or other inquiry into the robo-debt debacle.

The scheme, after all, bears the fingerprints of more than three ministers, including those of the prime minister, Scott Morrison, from when he was minister for social security, later when  as Treasure and deputy Liberal leader he promised a big crackdown on social security fraud, saving $7 billion, as part of the 2016 budget election.

The minister presently eating the shit sandwich, Stuart Robert, is Morrison’s close personal friend, one of his numbers men, and the person with whom he knelt to pray before his garden of Gethsemane.

 Another, Christian Porter, moved to becoming Attorney-General after his period in Social Services, and he and his legal advisers took far too long to see that the legal basis of robo-debt was fundamentally flawed. Putting that up for public exposure might invite, as it ought, questions about the calibre of the Attorney-General and would be future prime minister, and about the quality of the general legal advice the government gets, including about the sports-rorts affair.

It should be noted that the legal flaws of the robo-debt scheme were obvious, other than to the government’s legal advisers,  from the time that beneficiaries received threatening letters and began screaming blue murder three and a half years ago. The adverse federal court ruling merely confirmed what welfare agencies and other critics had said years before. These included the inherent impossibility of comparing annual income information from Tax with fortnightly payments from Centrelink, the reversed onus of proof, and the process that deemed anyone who did not respond to letters guilty of having been overpaid.

In March 2017, long before the class action but while Kathryn Campbell of Human Services was denying any legal problem before senate committees, I wrote that the adverse publicity had the advantage of helping beneficiaries (almost by definition without much power or legal resources) aware of their rights.

“It is by no means clear that only a fifth of those accused, as the government suggests, were innocent of overpayment,” I wrote. “Those are the ones who can readily establish themselves as victims of a very dodgy algorithm.

“Many others will not have the records or the capacity to gainsay the agency’s assertions, will lack capable advocates or the capacity to counter interpretations of entitlement legislation, or cute departmental pretences that its record represents the complete truth, as known to Centrelink, and that if it is wrong, or deficient, then that is because the client has mis-advised it, or failed to inform it of ‘correct’ facts.

“My advice to any person against whom a debt has been raised is that they lodge a legal appeal, and have the onus of proof put on the agency. At the very least this will ensure that the claim is reviewed by an administrative lawyer.

“It is simply not good enough to claim, as Campbell has, that ‘people have always been responsible for providing the department with correct information’, with the implication that if Centrelink, or the computer algorithm, had made a false deduction from the material, it must be the client’s fault.”

Leaving it to the Federal Court, having fought it all the way, meant that all robo-debt claims for alleged overpayment failed. It meant that Morrison’s pretence that his scheme could “save” the budget $7 billion over a few years was wrong. It also meant that the basic problems could not be addressed by mere tinkering, which might have been possible. There are voices bravely claiming that  there could be a re-invented robo-debt in six months time — drawn up so as to address the legal flaws. Perhaps, but if the process is managed by people who couldn’t see them before,  who thought them unimportant, or who took nine months after the decision to acknowledge that they had messed up, I wouldn’t have my hopes up.

There’s another problem that any external or independent inquiry might decide to look at.  Yet another minister,  Alan Tudge, took action against a media critic of the scheme by disclosing her personal details as a welfare recipient. There are times when government hides behind confected privacy claims to avoid being transparent and accountable; here was an instance in which the message sent out was criticise and give up your privacy. Sadly, in circumstances that would almost certainly be revisited if there were a proper inquiry, the then privacy commissioner had no problem with the minister’s action.

It is true that there is at least one public servant perfectly positioned to be the scapegoat. That would be Kathryn Campbell, presently Secretary of Social Services, but at the time robo-debt was rolled out, the secretary of the more junior human services department. Few of those who recognise what a colossal debacle occurred, and how closely she was involved in the organisation, timing, implementation and review of the scheme, would much mourn her departure. Nor would many of the frontline officers of Centrelink, who had repeatedly warned more senior officers of the disaster in being, and who bore the brunt of the anger, frustration and impotence of hundreds of thousands of people who successfully penetrated the  centrelink telephone system and its hours of waiting for an answer while trying to find out what, if anything, they had done wrong.

Ironically, Campbell has been at times philosophical about the public relations and administrative disaster. She has at times blamed the media, and an over–reaction during the “silly season”.  She has blamed recipients of her agency’s letter, and their stupidity in failing to recognise that it was but a plea for discussion, not a threat of debtor’s prison. She has even allowed that a lesson from the exercise might be the need for “co-design” and consultation, whether with staff, professional champions of the welfare sector, or — horrors — the public at large. No one has yet noticed any change in her own style.

But Morrison, and other ministers, might well be reluctant to feed Campbell to the wolves. She protected them, after all, and well beyond the call of duty. She argued the almost unarguable — such as that the initiating threatening letter was merely an invitation to treat with departmental officers, not an arbitrary announcement of an overpayment to welfare recipients living week-to-week requiring the compulsory return of thousands of dollars. She was unmoved, under questioning, about criticism that her scheme involved a requirement that recipients in the firing line prove their innocence of overclaiming rather than that the department prove its case. She resisted admitting the obvious, that she and senior staff had rushed into the scheme not fully prepared because of political pressure. When Tudge was criticised for leaking out details of the beneficiary history of Andy Fox, she was quick to defend him, to reveal a departmental scheme of monitoring and investigating public criticism and agency advice that it was cricket to fight back by attacking the messenger rather than dealing with the message.

Yet a ruthless government under pressure would probably have had little hesitation in throwing Campbell under the bus, had it been necessary. Sure, some might have argued, she did something for us, but what has she done lately? And, in any event, her loyalty had been rewarded, by promotion to being secretary of social services, rather than as the head of a subset of that department, at that stage (but no longer) regarded as a separate sub-department.

She had also, no doubt by pure coincidence, received a significant promotion in her secondary job as a senior officer in the Australian Army reserves. Previously a brigadier in charge of a reserve division, she is now a major general. She has said that her military leadership role  assists in her bureaucratic leadership role, and vice versa, but some of those familiar with her leadership style say she is more used to command than to listening or consultation, and to demanding, rather than earning, ready obedience. It is true that she had been overlooked — or been regarded as potentially controversial or perhaps a little toxic — when the powers-that-be (at that stage primarily Malcolm Turnbull) were canvassing potential secretaries of the department of defence.

Ms Campbell, or General Campbell, was in short in a far better position these days than she had been when she was facing fire before senate committees over robo-debt. She had, moreover, become, along with Mike Pezzullo, one of the most powerful of the departmental secretaries, apparently able to dominate in club more timid secretaries as well as ones on paper far more senior. It was never a surprise that Pezzullo (who himself lusts after Defence and who regards himself as far more eminently qualified than Campbell) tries to dominate other secretaries, and has, from time to time, lectured or bullied secretaries of prime ministers, Treasury and defence as though they  were junior officials. Campbell’s style is far more restrained, but many of her colleagues are terrified of her.

Campbell may also be in the running with Pezzullo  for the title of agency official associated with the biggest losses caused by administrative failure during her tenure. Pezzullo’s management of Home Affairs, and, earlier, Immigration, has been continually criticised by Auditors-General, whether over contracts for building and services in our concentration camp system, or for losses occasioned by  failed departmental computer acquisitions. In a normal department responsibilities for such debacles might not fall on the person at the top, but the Pezzullo style of management leaves little room for initiative below deck. Some might think the Treasury (or Tax) $60 billion miscalculation should be counted, but, lamentable as this was, it did not involve the actual throwing away of public money.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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