The sin of Robodebt

Mar 5, 2023
Devil and angel on balance scale.

What appears to be absent from the politicians and public servants appearing in the Robodebt Royal Commission is an understanding that it was a moral failure – a sin. Finding the sinners to punish in atonement might make us feel better for a moment, but it might not fix the sin.

One of the recurring themes from the politicians and public servants appearing at the Robodebt Royal Commission is a view that its illegality was a technical problem – if only the legal advice had been more favourable then there would be nothing to see. So far, what appears to be entirely absent from these witnesses is an understanding that Robodebt was a moral failure. This is hardly surprising; the Commission’s Letters Patent specifically asks about the legality of the scheme in its terms of reference, and although the Terms of Reference do go so far as to ask about the Scheme’s fairness, its morality per se is not up for examination. Royal Commissions don’t do that kind of question.

However, Robodebt was a moral failure. The Scheme’s architects, when the Commission manages to work out who they are, did an appalling thing to some of the most vulnerable of their fellow citizens. Does that make them bad people? That’s one possible conclusion and in the absolutist world of social media, it’s a frequent one – evil being a fairly common epithet. However, I have encountered some of these people over the years and while I can’t say I warmed to them, they are just ordinary people. I think this is a point that Hannah Arendt was trying to make in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem where she observed how terrifyingly normal Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, was.

Central to my own faith as a Quaker is that there is that of God in every person and the thought of an intrinsically evil person is something few, if any, Quakers would be comfortable with. This seems easy enough in my privileged world where I eat every day, pay my bills, repair or replace things that break, and where turning the other cheek might be uncomfortable but unlikely to be deadly. However, to the many people whose lives were wrecked by Robodebt, just saying, “there is that of God in everyone,” doesn’t cut it. How could someone with ‘that of God’ in them behave in such a devastating way and how could a good and loving God even allow it?

It may be time to rehabilitate the word ‘sin’, which seems to have lost favour with many liberal Christians. While sin, and salvation from it, might feature regularly among the concerns of some of Australia’s more conservative congregations, one could go for months and possibly years without much mention of sin in more liberally minded congregations. My Jesus is radically inclusive, shelters asylum seekers, as well as being a member of things like Extinction Rebellion and IPAN. Sin-talk seems anachronistic, overly concerned about who’s having sex with whom, and a distraction from the business of social justice. But in our reluctance to not be parodied as something reminiscent of some sweaty Deep South Revivalist Hall rooting out the devil, we may have lost a way to talk collectively about the great harms we do to one another.

Sin, is an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law and any thought, word, or act considered immoral, selfish, shameful, harmful, or alienating might be considered as sinful. By that definition Robodebt absolutely was a sin. But it is sin rather than sinners that we need to be most concerned with.

With sin can come atonement, another word that has fallen out of favour because of its association with punishment and the need to offer sacrifice as retribution to a punishing God. However, one understanding of atonement sees it as ‘at-one-ment’ and challenges the sin and not the sinner, resisting the temptation to create more victims – as evil as we might see them to be. Making the guilty worthy of redemption first and foremost. While not shying away from a clear-eyed understanding that there is the capacity for sin in all of us, with faith, we can choose to do something about sin without the need for scapegoats. If our country really is based on a Christian ethic as some of our politicians claim then the message of the Gospel is pretty clear – people who commit crimes need rehabilitation more than they need punishment.

I fear however that the Commission will attempt to atone for the sin of Robodebt with some sacrificial offering to appease a general thirst for retribution, and thus as if by some miracle, absolve us all from the consequences of its sin. If it does, I doubt anything much will change in the long term – just like the outcomes for every other Royal Commission in living memory. Ironically, it’s also probable that two of the most high-profile Christians associated with the scheme, Scott Morrison and Stuart Robert will form at least part of that sacrifice. But offering up sacrificial goats is not that effective in rooting out sin in the long term. No matter how smugly satisfied we might hope to feel if Scotty from Marketing and his ilk are taken down a peg or two, focussing on punishing them and not rehabilitating them won’t change much. Tackling sins like Robodebt might start with talking more about sin and less about the sinners.


A version of this article appeared in the Hobart Mercury ‘Talking Point’ on Saturday 25th February 2023.

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