The festering sore that led to the robodebt train wreck

The Royal Commission report into robodebt has exposed a wound in Australian state and federal government service that has been festering for decades, inflicted by personal ambition and kept hidden by a veneer of spin and sloganeering. 

When I started as a government employee in the 1970s the public service was dominated by the mandarins, departmental heads who ruled the roost. We now have the opposite extreme, apparently preferred by politicians, dominated by political spin.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes determined on the evidence that fraud among welfare recipients was minuscule, and that for years ministers and public servants, in going after people vilified as “welfare cheats”, ignored or buried advice that methods used to establish “debt” were illegal.

Besides nailing robodebt as a government scam, the commission cast light on the use of private contractors. 

In 2017, consultants PwC helped formulate strategies for a revised scheme, while public complaints were dealt with through contracted labour hire. The stated reason for this is that private consultants save money, but they also serve another less worthy purpose. Outside people are not bound by legal constraints, such as codes of conduct, under which public servants can be made to answer to the public for what they do. 

Therein lies a key element of the sickness that has afflicted Australian governments, federal and state, for decades: diminishing accountability for errors and wrongdoing.

As an institution of government the Australian public service came across to Labor PM Paul Keating as inflexible, hidebound and unresponsive. In 1994 he ended permanency for department heads, or secretaries, by putting them on fixed-term contracts. 

Keating unlocked the door to change; John Howard smashed it open. In what became known in the service as “the night of the long knives”, immediately after taking office in 1996 he took the unprecedented step of sacking six secretaries to secure, he said, more “responsive” heads of departments.

The winds of change were felt down the chain. Managers – I was one of them – were called on to “market test” their functions, to investigate whether their work could be done more cheaply using outside contracts. 

As political masters were making clear to heads of agencies that they must be more “responsive”, lower level staff were confronted with their own mortality. In my case, I was eventually ousted when my position was upgraded and thrown open to all comers. Despite being found the best candidate, I was rejected as “unsuitable”. 

So it was no surprise to me to read the commission testimony earlier this year of the agency head responsible for robodebt, Renee Leon. She was sacked soon after government services minister Stuart Robert rejected her “unhelpful” advice that the scheme was illegal. “Legal advice is just advice,” Robert blithely told her.

The robodebt train wreck was decades in the making. It goes all the way back to when ministers began revolting against frank and fearless advice, especially when it sought to apply legal limits to their powers.

Under pressure from above, bosses can breach long-standing rules and conventions, causing bad things to happen all the way down the chain. In the dying years of my public service career I had to deal personally with this. 

When John Howard’s “market testing” was getting into top gear, CSIRO scientists, at some risk to their jobs, publicly demonstrated against the sale of software they had developed at public cost, which made it public intellectual property. I circulated to staff information about the event and a brief comment of my own. 

For that I was referred to the Australian government solicitor for breaching public service rules. His opinion was that while I was technically in breach, my action was more akin to whistleblowing than insubordination. I kept my job, for the moment.

During a highly charged election campaign, the Tampa election of 2001, I advised the head of my agency of caretaker rules banning public servants from writing campaign material for ministers. He angrily retorted that “you’ll do as the minister says”. Two decades before robodebt, this was John Howard’s “responsive” public service.

Some years ago I had cause to deal with Centrelink to sort out pension arrangements. The staff I dealt with in the Hobart office were exemplary public servants: thorough, scrupulous, attentive, courteous. I could not have wished for better service.

Frontline staff like these have been hung out to dry in the wake of the royal commission. In no way did they cause the robodebt disaster, but as public servants they are tainted by it: yet more victims of the disgraceful conduct of their masters.

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