Robodebt was and is a huge a scandal that was eventually investigated by a Royal Commission. We’ve studied the 1000-pages-plus Royal Commission Report—it’s a shocking read—and have written a summary and analysis.
If you read anything of what we write, this analysis stands out as one of the most significant we have written. (9-minute read)
The issue goes to the heart of whether government can be trusted to be honest and accountable.
Frankly, Robdebt should shatter any naivety Australians may hold about the ‘purity’ of government. Robodebt shows that governments will lie and cheat, particularly when transparency and accountability are more a public relations con than reality.
The Robodebt Royal Commission Report details how the government of the day decided that there must by wide-ranging social security fraud. It claimed the fraud to be in the order of well over $1 billion per year, but there were no facts to back that claim. Nonetheless, it was pushed as a political priority and the public service was charged with delivering the policy.
The orchestrated ‘scam’ that the government imposed on 866,857 Australians was pretty simple in its design as was its inbuilt flaw.
The scheme involved the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) providing the Department of Human Services (DHS) with income records of welfare recipients over short periods of time, usually a fortnight. DHS then assumed that the income for the short period applied over longer periods, say a year.
Based on this false assumption, DHS then alleged that welfare recipients had more income than they had declared, and that overpayment of welfare had occurred as a result on a massive scale. DHS aggressively collected the ‘debts’. Great hardship followed. There were even suicides.
The Commission’s Report details systemic and deliberate lying, deceit, fraud and cover-up layered over the top of incompetence, bad management, maladministration and ignoring the law at the most senior levels of the public service and politics.
The extent of the scandal would surprise many, but what we observe are patterns of behaviour by government that we have seen before—particularly by the ATO as just one example.
We offer our view of how this needs to be addressed. We say that relying on internal government department policies to stop such government fraud (which is the current dominant structure) is not enough. Government, instead, must be held to at least the same levels of transparency and accountability as are expected of the rest of the community.
We say that Parliament needs to take charge of the bureaucracy.