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The Robodebt Rogues Gallery

If ever there was an instance of such a hideous failing in government policy and its cowardly implementation by the public service, Australia’s cruel, inept and vicious Robodebt program would have to be one of them.

Robodebt was a scheme developed by the Department of Human Services (DHS) and submitted as a budget measure by the then Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison, in 2015. Its express purpose: to recover claimed overpayments from welfare recipients stretching back to the 2010-11 financial year. The automated scheme used a deeply flawed “income averaging” method to assess income and benefit entitlements, yielding inaccurate results. Vitally, the assumption there was that recipients had stable income through the financial year. The scheme also failed to comply with the income calculation provisions of the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth).

The results were disastrous for the victims in receipt of crude, harrying debt notices. The scheme induced despair and mental ruin. It led to various instances of suicide. It saw a concerted government assault on the poor and vulnerable. A remorseless campaign was waged by such unwholesome types as the former human services minister, Alan Tudge, ever keen to libel the undeserving. Media outlets such as A Current Affair were more than happy to provide platforms for the demonising effort. “We will find you,” he told the program, “we will track you down, and you will have to repay those debts, and you may end up in prison.”

The grotesque policy eventually caught the ire of the courts, which ruled the scheme unlawful. That, along with a change in government, eventually led to the establishment of a Royal Commission, whose findings by Commissioner Catherine Holmes were released on July 7. They make for grim reading.

While it will take time to wade through a report running over 1,000 pages, it is fitting to single out a few of the rogues who played starring roles of lasting infamy in the Robodebt drama. Who better to start with than the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, whose relationship with the truth continues to be strained and estranged.

In December 2014, Morrison was appointed Minister for Social Services. He immediately wanted to impress with his promised scalping of alleged welfare cheats and scroungers. Wishing to make an impression he, unusually, held direct meetings with the secretary of the DHS, Kathryn Campbell, to tease out what would become the Robodebt proposal. Concern from legal officers and senior staff within the Department of Social Services (DSS) about the legal compliance of the program were ignored or dismissed.

The Commission duly rejected “as untrue Mr Morrison’s evidence that he was told that income averaging as contemplated in the Executive Minute was an established practice and a ‘foundational way’ in which DHS worked.” The New Policy Proposal (NPP) that arose was utterly at odds with the legal position of the Department of Social Services stating that legislative change was required to implement the new income averaging approach.

Morrison assiduously ignored making any inquiries as to the reasons for that reversal. He “allowed Cabinet to be misled because he did not make that obvious inquiry.” The necessary information – that the scheme would require legislative and policy change to permit the use of income averaging – was not supplied. He accordingly “failed to meet his ministerial responsibility … to ensure that [the scheme] was lawful.”

Tudge comes in for special mention for the “use of information about social security recipients in the media.” This could only be regarded as an abuse of power. After knowing that the scheme had claimed the lives of at least two people from suicide, the minister also “failed to undertake a comprehensive review of the Scheme, including its fundamental features, or to consider whether its impacts were so harmful to vulnerable recipients that it should cease.”

Christian Porter, who also occupied the position of Minister for Social Services, “could not rationally have been satisfied of the legality of the Scheme on the basis of his general knowledge of the NPP process, when he did not have actual knowledge of the content of the NPP, and had no idea whether it had said anything about the practice of income averaging.”

The government services minister holding the Robodebt reins in its final days also cuts a less than impressive figure. In Stuart Robert’s mind, he was a moral man coming late to a policy he wished to end, despite praising it publicly and using false figures. The Commission found that Robert had not unequivocally instructed the secretary of human services in November 2019 “to cease income averaging as a sole or partial basis for debt raising.” It was “reasonable to suppose that Mr Robert still hoped to salvage the Robodebt Scheme in some respects.”

The public service, supposedly famed for providing the frank and fearless advice treasured by ministers, also yields its clownish and cowardly rogues. The officers of the DSS and DHS, the Commissioner finds, failed to give Morrison “frank and full advice before and after the development of the NPP,” the result of “pressure to deliver the budget expectations of the government and by Mr Morrison, as the Minister for Social Services, communicating the direction to develop the NPP through the Executive Minute.”

Kathryn Campbell, Secretary of the DHS, is a true standout. “Her response to staff concerns, including those about income averaging and debt accuracy, was not to seek external assurance, or even to make inquiries about the matter with her chief counsel or other departmental lawyers.” What took place, instead, was a communication on January 25, 2017 to staff that there would be “no change to how we assess income or calculate and recover debts.”

The DHS also receives a stinging rebuke in its approach to the media’s coverage of the scheme’s evident defects. In 2017, when Robodebt came under withering scrutiny, the department responded “to criticism by systematically repeating the same narrative, underpinned by a set of talking points and standard lines.” The policy of bureaucrats was to act as “gatekeepers” keen on “getting it [the media criticism] shut down as quickly as possible.”

The names of the Robodebt architects and apologists should be blazoned upon a monument of execration for time immemorial. Even now, its perpetrators are resorting to extravagant acts of hand washing, gleefully claiming they have not been named as subjects of potential criminal or civil prosecution. Campbell, in a time-honoured tradition showing that gross failure rewards, continues to receive money from an advisory role in the Defence Department specific to implementing the AUKUS security alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, can only concede that “mistakes” had been made. Labor’s Minister for Government Services, Bill Shorten, had “politicised” the issue. But for the string of coalition governments whose existence only came to an end in May 2022, the politics and ideology of punishing welfare recipients remained central and, in the end, pathological.


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  1. Stewart Sweeney

    The Road to Robodebt

    The road to Robodebt was long and winding. The roots of Robodebt are deep and pervasive.

    The market privileging ideology that drives robodebt goes all the way back to the establishment of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1949 and the conservative economists and philosophers who set out to destroy the idea of government developing to reduce inequality and injustices and to support individuals, communities and society positively.

    The eventual global triumph of this conservative and reactionary ideology was crystalised in 1987 when then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that there is no such thing as society.

    The influence of the market privileging ideology then extended way beyond the explicitly conservative political parties to shift and permeate the thinking and policy of Labor and Social Democratic parties locally and globally. A cycle of cuts to public housing, transport, health, education, social welfare, austerity and more became normalised along with widespread privatisation and contracting out.

    As a consequence and irrespective of government changes, inequality increased, and the poor became simultaneously embedded and marginalised and further stigmatised in our economy, society and culture.

    It took an explicitly conservative government here in Australia to take the Mont Pelerin agenda to its logical and destructive robodebt conclusion. Thankfully, a Labor opposition now in government retained enough memory of its traditional values to join with victims and grassroots activists to eventually blow the whistle on the gross injustices and illegalities of the robodebt scheme and will now take some action to repair the damage and pursue some justice.

    It will, however, require significant changes to Labor’s economic and social policies to have some prospect of ensuring that robodebt-like schemes never happen again.

    It will take even bigger changes to Labor’s current centrist thinking and policies to drive the redistribution of wealth and income required to reduce the embedded inequality and poverty that afflicts and stigmatises so many of our citizens and leaves them always vulnerable to robodebt-like schemes.

    Stewart Sweeney
    Adelaide 5000

  2. Win Jeavons

    What is the point of politics if fraudulent illegal actions are NOT politicised?

  3. New England Cocky

    @ Stewart Sweeney: An excellent comment explaining how the removal of our Australian egalitarian principles were undone by foreign political ideas pandering to the bosses.
    Ideally Kathryn Campbell, and PwC partners should be banned from ever working in any government agency or position for life as a consequence of their traitorous actions against Australian voters. Perhaps they could be incarcerated on Manus or Nauru without communications as replacements for the many legal refugees wanting to contribute positively to our Australian economy.

  4. Phil Pryor

    S Sweeney, the summit meeting of Hayek’s like minded types (ex Walter Lippman Paris meeting invitees) gathered at the Hotel du Parc, atop Mont Pelerin, in 1947.Money was found from committed selfites, and c. 37 attended of c. sixty invites. Future libertarians saw this as an awe inspiring gathering, shaping a future of applied greed, despite having no influence. Stigler joked, “it was all the friends of F Hayek.” They aimed to support their version of liberalism, but an economic oppressive conservativism, having won W W 2 and having seen off Hitler and Stalin’s central restrictive governments and thus controls. They discussed high flight imaginative thoughts about free enterprise, inflationary economies, competition, teaching of history (hooray), liberal economic thought and christianity, the future of Germany, a future European federation, the rule of law…Mises stormed out after insulting others as “a bunch of socialists.” Robbins wrote a mission statement. A second meeting was planned and eventually organised, in 1949. The Keynesians, looking on from afar, did not like what they heard, including that Hayek had dumped his wife and family to go to a former love interest. Hayek never worked (perhaps he washed dishes once) or invested in private enterprise, curiously, and touted friends to get him a post with tenure and an assured income, for two family payouts now were needed. So much has come from this and subsequent developments as theoreticians planned the unwitting reduction of wealth and happiness for so many of us. And, we know from studies the deaths and injuries, deprivations and indignities of brainless Thatcherism in education, housing, health, welfare.

  5. Ronnie C

    The program name was enough of a hint to know where it was the smug corporate goons wanted to take things.
    Robodebt, like sci-fi movie anti-hero Robocop, was a shining example of the mindset ‘humanity is surplus to requirements’.

  6. Harry Lime

    Let those two fuckheads in the heading photo get the public flogging they so richly deserve.I’m thinking the newly minted NACC is going to make Blue Hills or Days of our lives look like a flash in the pan.

  7. andyfiftysix

    the politics and ideology of punishing welfare recipients remained central and, in the end, pathological. This statement says it all.

    One can add refugees to that statement now.

    Dutton saying Shorten is a political animal shows how self aware he isnt. Dutton better get used to Shorten being on the right side of history.

    Labor needs to well and truly pull the libs pants down . Go for the juggular so to speak. The libs would and have done in the past.

    Morrison needs to be given the full wack of the legal system. His “i am the good guy defence” is a sham. He presided over a few totally immoral acts and then paraded infront of the cameras, “look what a good christian i am”. People died because of his actions, he needs to do a Lord Jim and face the firing squad. The only reason he hangs around is because of the money……NOBODY will employ a fraud, and he has history now.

  8. Phil Pryor

    Socially sick, mentally arid, intellectually impaired, logic leached, morals maggoted, ethics empty, conscience constipated, soul soiled, heart herniated, this filth of a continuum from Abbott to Morrison, with a cast of hundreds of dreadful lying, betraying, un-Australian brown sty droppings makes one sick at heart for the nation’s future and its decency. But Peter Duckwit-Futton will save us all with patriotic posturing and pandering to evil idiocy. Greed will canter on unhindered, the race rigged by Merde Dog, Stokes, Costello and fellow mites, grubs, platyhelminthcs and nematodes of the inglorious right wing.

  9. Harry Lime

    Stewart Sweeney,agree with all of that,it’s been obvious for years,but real change has to get past the ingrained ,falsely held attitudes of those that have spent years getting to the top of the heap.The good of the people is merely a byproduct.Little wonder that Labor attack the Greens,they know the threat they present to their neoliberal policies.

  10. Andrew Smith

    Phil Pryor & Stewart Sweeney

    If it’s the Mont Pelerin (Austrian, Chicago Schools & Koch’s Atlas Network) informed Robodebt policy, then the question is, was it imported from US via IPA or CIS, or direct from a US Koch outlet directly e.g. a consultant?

  11. Phil Pryor

    Andrew, a young Friedman went on to develop attitudes, not academic and professional I think, which spread to form a “fresh water school” (Chicago) type of developed thinking, quite opposed to the east coast more Keynesian thinking (Saltwater school) and, with Volcker and others, dominated the dim Reagan to get much doctrine into action, to the USA’s permanent damage. Reagan sent USA debt up (after 38 presidents) from c. 900 billions, (or 960 on forward estimates ) to over three trillions, and with forward estimates again Bush senior got it over four trillions. The rich got absurd and obscene tax cuts, but military spending went sky high. Disaster. Now this has spread wide by greedites and professional political conservative conmen, all for SELF, in career, notice, pose, networking, policy, AND, an era of gross criminality followed there, with Milken, Madoff, the Enron criminality, endless murders, defaults, all EVIL; and, Australian dickheads from Abbott, Palmer, a huge chorus of conservative shitheads connected with and covered by…Merde Dog.

  12. GL

    Scummo, like The Donald, is incapable of accepting any responsibility let alone showing contrition about anything he is involved in. It will always be someone else’s fault and he will always be the hard done by innocent party. A vile wannabe petty little nothing with delusions of grandeur; in other words Australia’s version of Trump up to and including the massive ego that both objects have in common.

    Now I’m off to listen to Alice Cooper Goes to Hell before sleepy bobo’s.

  13. K

    Stewart Sweeney and Phil Pryor, if you haven’t already read it, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine is a must. Disaster capitalism exposed.

    New England Cocky, sadly, she’ll still retire on a government pension…. And on her inflated salary over the years, this is likely to be a pretty penny. Hardly justice!

    A well written article, Dr Kampmark.

  14. andyfiftysix

    GL, thats a great album that i pulled out a couple of weeks ago. ” Having a hell of a time my dear, wish you were here. ”

    Now the biggest failing is that the Lib heirachy has failed to condem the actions of its leaders. Its every bit a moral failing .
    Thats something they just dont get. Thats been a trait on show since menzies time. Thats been on display in their policies from reds under the beds to refugees to robodebt and the voice. They even pretended to be “christians” while washing their hands in blood.

    When you hear small L liberals saying policies need to change you have to laugh with incredulity. If they want to really change, their whole agenda needs to be turffed. Small government and the capitalist agenda HAVE NO MORALS, we have seen the evidence both here and abroad.

    The good parts of capitalism are very good, the bad parts are every bit as bad as caligula. This is the debate we need to have. instead we are still trying to clean shit up from the last mob.
    Why should we , the electorate, be voting for people who have NO MORALS?

  15. Wayne Turner

    The current Federal Liberal party are complete scum,should be de-registered,and declared a terrorist organisation. They are all rightfully stained by the illegal Robodebt. Those directly involved should be in prison,from Morrison,Tudge,Robert to the puppets of the Liberal service Kathryn Campbell. Also,Peter Dutton showing yet again why he is unfit to ever be PM. So tone deaf,and trying to spin it that his involved mates are victims.The only people that politised Robodebt was the Libs that came up with this,and let it continue.Add to that the hypocritical irony that Dutton claims his Libs mates should be presumed innocent, when the same Libs took that away from the victims of Robodebt. The Federal Liberal Party are unfit for opposition now,and should F OFF.

  16. Alotl Axolotl

    Here’s my take on the rein of Smirky McHairplug Scotty. Our god-bothering follower of the Prosperity Doctrine of Hillsong lies at the root of this small m ‘man’. If you aren’t familiar with this doctrine, then research it. NOW.
    Let’s add a determined push by Smirky for his beloved Religeous Freedom Bill. Remember that? Oh how he laughed.
    Now why would “I don’t hold a hose Mate” want a rapid and legislated bill put in place which he could use to cover his festering arse, if questioned, should he act ‘…in my religious beliefs’ in say, oh I don’t know, maybe Robodebt? Add in fellow Hillsongian Jug Ears Robert and we have a trifecta.
    Both would have benefited from the RFB, no?
    Am I relying too much on internal conspiracies or do I make a reasonable argument ? Let me know.
    Smirky can claim “I reject that entirely” all he wants, but I live in eternal hope that Big Bubby in the Bluestone College showers will ignore that claim as the soap ‘accidently’ slips onto the shower tiles.

  17. Frank

    I would burn the lot at the stake,or the firing squad,as the head of this satanic concept,hung drawn and quarter then fed to the pigs,hows that sound Scottie from Marketing

  18. Clakka

    In the good old days of bumper stickers, my favourite was, “The people will lead and the leaders will follow”
    A wonderful utopian ideal, except when one stops to contemplate the madding crowd and lunatic electors.
    And who was it that invented that fairy floss term ‘Noblesse Oblige’?
    Lord Owen had some interesting observations on power and the psychopathy of hubris.
    I prefer before him, Lord Acton’s, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    But what is it about modernity beyond that wrecking-ball harridan, Thatcher, and her dim-witted cowpoke god-botherer, Reagan?
    Politics, particularly the right-wing type, has taken a nosedive through “look at me, no need to think”, to celebrity bullshit, and on to abject self-serving corruption and criminality.

    Has it always been thus, or has our observation been shifted by means of progress of knowledge (corrupted or otherwise) via the march of media through newspapers, television and on to the internet of things?

    Whatever; it stinks. Thank goodness we don’t have to smell it.

    The big question is, when will the legislators make the changes that close the doors enabling their misdirections and deceits?

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