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Robodebt: Anatomy of a scandal


Catherine Holmes’ royal commission report into Robodebt was accompanied by a blaze of shocking facts and figures, including that the scheme demanded 526,000 Australians repay money they did not owe and that it cost the Commonwealth $565.2 million, rather than raising $1.7 billion.

The findings against former ministers and senior public servants including Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, Christian Porter and Kathryn Campbell were damning. A ‘sealed section’ makes recommendations about who could be referred for civil or even criminal prosecution.

The failings of the scheme were manifest: income averaging imposed on people in an unreasonable and inaccurate fashion; debt collectors sent out to harass people to pay up; warnings from the public service frontline about the functioning of the scheme ignored; a program enacted without the necessary law changes put in place; a cabinet misled about the legality of the scheme Holmes’ own words by Scott Morrison. (Morrison has completely rejected the findings).

But beyond the 57 recommendations of Holmes’ 990-page report surely the most shocking is that the Commission heard evidence that impact of the Scheme was a factor in the suicide of at least three people. As Holmes noted: ‘the Commission is confident that these were not the only tragedies of the kind’.

‘Services Australia could not provide figures for the numbers of people who committed suicide as a result of the Scheme. To be fair, it is difficult to see how such information could be reliably gathered. In any case, it does little for the families of those who have died to speak of their loss in terms of numbers.’


As the commissioner notes, ‘anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes’ and it is politicians who frame public debate about whether people are ‘welfare recipients’ or ‘dole bludgers’.


As one Department of Human Services staff member told the commission in evidence: ‘[I] experienced listening to multiple suicide attempts over the phone and I have been diagnosed with PTSD since I finalised my work with Centrelink’.

This last decade has seen a marked uptick into the number of royal commissions ordered by federal governments. In the eleven years that John Howard was prime minister, just five royal commissions were held, including into the HIH collapse, the AWB affair and the construction industry. The Rudd government ordered none and the Gillard government ordered one, into institutional responses into child sexual abuse.

Compare that with the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments, which ordered seven in its nine years including into the home insulation scheme, trade unions and the banking sector. Some in Labor viewed the home insulation inquiry ordered by Abbott as a ‘political’ royal commission designed to damage the ALP.

But four young men died tragically and unnecessarily in the installation of pink batts across the country because of significant failings in the implementation and design of the scheme, which rapidly rolled out as a financial stimulus measure to combat the global financial crisis. A reckoning was required to ensure lessons were learned.

Robodebt was even more egregious a government program designed to raise revenue for federal coffers that led instead to the deaths of three Australians, and possibly more. That is simply unconscionable.

The growing number of royal commissions has led some to question their efficacy and necessity. Shouldn’t government and the public service, in the ordinary course of business, learn from their mistakes and put better systems and processes in place? And given only a handful of people will ever read this or any other weighty royal commission report, aren’t they over kill?

In the case of Robodebt the answer is clearly no, given the culture of the Department of Human Services, which is excoriated in the report, from former secretary Campbell on down. As the report notes, the culture ‘discouraged the conveying of adverse information’ to more senior public servants and ministers.

Renee Leon, Campbell’s successor at DHS, said she had been made aware of the department’s culture and reputation by a deputy who worked for her at the Department of Employment: ‘there was a lot of aggression expressed at senior levels, where behaviour that I don’t think is appropriate was modelled and encouraged, such as yelling at people or publicly shaming them in front of others’.

Plainly, this is not an agency able to inquire into itself, let alone reform its own culture. (Incidentally, people hoping for a royal commission into state and federal governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be disappointed. Anthony Albanese has always been careful to say publicly he supports a royal commission or some other form of inquiry – and it is more likely to be the latter, not the former, that is eventually ordered).

Holmes’ final report does not quite draw a line under what she dubbed a ‘crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal’ that ‘made many people feel like criminals’.

The details of the sealed section, including possible charges against some of the players, will doubtless emerge.

The bigger question is whether the Robodebt royal commission leads to a change in the treatment of and attitudes to people who receive welfare payments.

As the commissioner notes, ‘anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism, useful for campaign purposes’ and it is politicians who frame public debate about whether people are ‘welfare recipients’ or ‘dole bludgers’.

Hopefully an enduring outcome of the Robodebt omnishambles is that politicians of all stripes stop leaning on the latter formulation in future. If the unnecessary suicides of three Australians can’t teach that lesson, what can?




James Massola is National Affairs editor for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, based in Canberra. He has previously been South-East Asia Correspondent, based in Jakarta, and Chief Political Correspondent in Canberra. He has also worked for the Canberra Times, the Australian, the Australian Financial Review, as assistant editor of Eureka Street and is a regular commentator on ABC radio and TV. He is also the author ofThe Great Cave Rescue about the Thai boys football team.

Main image: A storm gathers over Parliament House. (Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images)

Topic tags: James Massola, Robodebt, Catherine Holmes, Royal Commission



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article James Massola.

Robodebt occurred in a country which is becoming nastier by the day.

First there is the denigration of people who are unemployed, struggling financially and/or homeless. The Reserve Bank governor says we need a higher unemployment rate to bring down inflation, but those who are thrown out of work because of that policy are blamed for their fate.

Yes, "anti-welfare rhetoric is easy populism". Since Catherine Holmes' report was published I have read social media comments justifying a heavy hand on welfare-recipients; the belief that dole-bludgers are many and devious is alive and well. I would think that if we had a national referendum on whether robodebt should be reinstated, the Yes vote would not be tiny.

We have lost our sense of "commonwealth". We are now individuals, at best families, at very best small communities, fighting for our own place in the sun in a world of work and commerce that is increasingly cut-throat. I am watching with interest the efforts of the monolithic supermarkets to police their customers, and, I have to confess, cheering on those who manage to emerge from these shops having satisfied their hunger whilst roaming the shelves.

Will governments work to restore our sense of the "common"? Not unless there is a successful grass-roots rebellion against reigning corporations, and we free ourselves of the domination of current political parties

Janet | 18 July 2023  
Show Responses

"The Reserve Bank governor says we need a higher unemployment rate to bring down inflation.." Clearly the RBA still believes in the "Phillips Curve" theory which links inflation with high employment. It has come under scrutiny and doubt in recent times. The "Stagflation" of the 1970s with inflation occurring with high unemployment puts it in doubt. Also, unemployment in the U.S. almost totally disappeared in WW2, yet there was almost no inflation. Why? Because the U.S. government kept a tight control on prices. Australia needs to do something similar to stop our oligopolies from taking advantage of their position to keep increasing prices of essential goods (food, petrol, energy, etc) to make profits and extra dividends for their shareholders (and big bonuses for their CEOs).

Bruce Stafford | 20 July 2023  

I totally agree with Janet's comments. A shocking outrageous treatment of the least able to defend themselves. Heads need to roll including the politicans who okayed the illegal scheme.

Hopefully some good will emerge from this massive injustice.

Gavin O'Brien | 21 July 2023  

The LNP cabinet at the time and the heads of the relevant departments need to serve some jail time. It is apparent that an anti-welfare psychology was shared by pollies who used their power to punish the disadvantaged. The essence of help and protection under the "Social Security Act" was ignored by these people, hence their actions amounted to being unlawful. However, they will all walk away untouched and that is a fact of life when one has connections, wealth and power over others.

Cam RUSSELL | 21 July 2023  

Let us get some facts here. Robodebt was fermented by Gillard and Shorten who took it to an election and lost. Typical of many governments run by Public Servants the Libs continued it on and it was fully supported in the Senate by labor.
So it is ironical that labor now blames the libs when in fact the public servants provided false information. It is true that Morrison was warned by IT specialists (not the public service) not to trust the information being provided and to start again. But he was never advised it was illegal from the start ie Gillard and Shortens version.
There are faults all around but it just wasnt one mans.
How do I know this - my friend was one of the IT specialists who is still working and assisting the Labor government in many programs. he response is that this Labor government is dirty.
So please, ensure you have all the facts before writing an expose on Robodebt. There are thousands of people out there who have rorted the system and many of them are in the public service and are not Ministers of the Crown.

PHIL VINCENT ROWAN | 21 July 2023  

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