In August 2022 Peter Dutton was interviewed in Adelaide. In a wide ranging interview he stated, many times, that if a Royal Commission was set up to look into Robodebt, then Bill Shorten should be the first minister to appear.
Asked several times about Scott Morrison’s responsibility for the scheme he repeated his charge that Shorten, alongside Tanya Plibersek, had designed the scheme.
Clear differences have since been identified between the two iterations. In an AAP Factcheck, it was found that Labor’s scheme required the input of actual human staff in determining whether there was indeed a debt, and another crucial difference was the burden of proof was moved from the government to the welfare recipient.
Scale was another. When the system was automated, the number of referrals and debts raised rose from 20,000 a year, to 20,000 a week.
Before the Royal Commission was even begun Mr Dutton implied that the Royal Commission would be a sham, and it would turn into a tricky political game, in which Anthony Albanese would attempt to inflict revenge on his predecessor.
A strange observation, when we see the damage done to over a half-million Australians. Many of them, and many others who simply believe in good governance, would be savouring the prospect of the likes of Morrison, Tudge, Porter and Robert being brought to some form of justice, whatever that looks like.
What was the report’s outcome?
If we fast forward to July 2023 the report has been released. It has named several former Coalition ministers, and several department heads and senior public servants, as having failed in their duty to oversee the program, and to deliver a fair and reasonable service to the taxpayer.
Mr Dutton now seems to think that, although he has now apologised for the scheme on behalf of the former government, the Labor Party was enjoying the findings of the Royal Commission way too much. He described Bill Shorten as “gleeful”.
It seems he seriously underestimated the Royal Commissioner, who has earned herself a reputation as a direct and fluent communicator, with a tendency to call a spade a spade. She has delivered a report which is clearly her own work, and not ghost-written by Anthony Albanese.
Most damning was her finding that the program was unlawful, and that somewhere along the line senior public servants chose to evade their responsibilities to the parliament, apparently to pander to Scott Morrison’s desire for favourable results, and favourable press coverage.
When Marise Payne was giving evidence before the Royal Commission, she was asked who ultimately was responsible when mistakes were made in formulating public policy. She answered, “Responsibility is always borne by ministers.”
Morrison was the senior minister at the inception, and he presented the policy to cabinet. The only problem was that, through ignorance, wilful or not, or plain oversight, the question of legality had not been settled, and this led to the subsequent finding that the scheme was “unfair and unlawful.”
How have the former ministers behaved since the Royal Commission?
Christian Porter resigned from parliament, before the Royal Commission began. Alan Tudge has resigned from parliament, after his evidence was taken. Stuart Robert has resigned from parliament, after his evidence was taken.
Scott Morrison has remained in parliament. He has disputed the findings of the Royal Commission.
Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert have also disputed the findings. Considering the short attention span of the majority of Australians there is no guarantee that the outrage will continue for long.
Are there to be any legal consequences for those named?
It is unknown how many of the key figures have been referred for civil and or criminal charges. Those so named will inevitably face some sort of accounting for their failures, although it might end up only involving a slap on the wrist.
When the political class prosecutes its own, there is always a feeling that me-tooism will prove too strong for their blood. Today’s witch-hunt often runs out of steam, so do not be surprised if, in a couple of years, they collectively decide to call it all off.
The whole sorry mess has been labelled as “cruel and crude,” but we will only know the outcome when the legal process has ended. Remember, it is a classic case of us against them. Politicians have been shown to put their own interests first, and we all know that maintaining the rage is not their strong suit.
Our political culture is imbued with a crude and cruel mind-set. We need to treat those who need our help better. Those on welfare, refugees and the disabled are our fellow citizens. Politicians use these groups as straw men, set up to divert our attention away from their own malfeasance.
If all else fails, it was a pleasure to see the likes of Morrison, Tudge and Robert squirming on the witness stand. Perhaps that is the only satisfaction we will get.
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