If there are two things to be learnt from the current Royal Commission into the Robodebt scandal, it’s that governments can and do ‘get it wrong’ and that governments can and do inflict massive harm on individuals.
In the Robdebt affair the Australian Taxation Office supplied the income data of tens of thousands of welfare recipients to Services Australia, the federal government’s welfare department. The data was misused by Services Australia resulting in up to 200,000 people who didn’t owe the government anything being hounded by the department over incorrectly assessed debts. The scheme was illegal but the department pushed ahead anyway.
Some might say that the Royal Commission is political payback by the Albanese government against the Morrison government. That’s nonsense. The inquiry is an important investigation into how government can ‘stuff up’ even while claiming to be acting in the public interest. Lessons must be learnt, and remedies implemented to limit the misuse of government power over individuals.
That’s why we are deeply concerned to read media reports of a push to dismantle the independent ATO watchdog, the Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman. The Tax Ombudsman is a small federal government department that is legislatively charged with investigating complaints against, and reporting on the performance of, the ATO.
In our view the ATO hates this oversight because it creates some measure of transparency. The ATO has a powerful media unit that pumps out stories about how perfect the ATO is. But we know that the ATO gets things wrong on too many occasions. Take this one example.
In the Robodebt Royal Commission the ATO has given evidence that the ATO remained silent about the illegality of the Robodebt program in order to protect the Human Services Department (Services Australia) from adverse publicity. The ATO wanted to show solidarity with other government departments. In fact, the ATO should have spoken up, but they didn’t. This is what happens in governments.
Good public servants will often see the protection of the institution as more important than the protection of ‘the people’, even when government inflicts harm on the people. On the other hand, public servants can have their lives destroyed if they tell the truth. Look at the treatment of ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle.
Governments need to have strong internal watchdog departments. This is what the Taxation Ombudsman does. The Ombudsman has a legislative charter to watch the ATO. Such internal watchdogs act as early warning radar systems. They make for better, more transparent government. They reduce the ability of government to harm ‘the people’. Who knows? A Services Australia watchdog might have prevented the Robodebt scandal.
We’re writing to the Prime Minister and others to ask for commitments to retain the Taxation Ombudsman. In fact, we’re asking for reform and an increase in the Ombudsman’s powers. A parliamentary committee last year recommended just this. Read our summary ‘One Giant Step for Taxpayers – ‘Taxpayer Rights’.