Robo-debt commissioner searches for compassion, finds nothing there
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Here, surely, is the most damning judgment on political and public service maladministration in Australian history.
Royal commissioner Catherine Holmes, SC, makes clear she has examined the soul of recent Coalition administrations and found that so far as compassion for citizens most in need, there was nothing there.
Jennifer Miller lost her son Rhys Cauzzo to suicide after he was chased by debt collectors claiming he owed almost $18,000 to Centrelink.Credit: Monique Westermann
“Robo-debt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms,” she wrote.
Holmes’ words, at the very end of her overview of the scheme in her voluminous royal commission report, fairly quiver with disdain for those senior politicians and public servants who designed and delivered such a contemptible scheme.
More piercing, however, are her introductory sentences in which she traverses the icy motivation behind the design.
Specifically, she explores how a series of Coalition administrations viewed society’s most vulnerable citizens as costly inconveniences, and how it led to what was an illegal system propped up by what she says was collusion and dishonesty at its heart.
“There are different mindsets one can adopt in relation to social welfare policy,” she wrote.
“One is to recognise that many citizens will at different times in their lives need income support – on a temporary basis for some as they study or look for work; longer-term for others, for reasons of age, disadvantage or disability – and to provide that support willingly, adequately and with respect.
“An alternative approach is to regard those in receipt of social security benefits as a drag on the national economy, an entry on the debit side of the budget to be reduced by any means available: by casting recipients as a burden on the taxpayer, by making onerous requirements of those who are claiming or have claimed benefit, by minimising the availability of assistance from departmental staff, by clawing back benefits whether justly or not, and by generally making the condition of the social security recipient unpleasant and undesirable.
“The robo-debt scheme exemplifies the latter.”
In other words, powerful politicians and public servants deliberately set about demonising, pursuing and sometimes – in tragedies almost too heartbreaking to contemplate – literally frightening the life out of little people whose needs fell on the wrong side of the cold budget ledger.
The social services minister who introduced the scheme in 2015, declaring bullishly that “there does need to be a strong welfare cop on the beat” and who subsequently became the most powerful politician in the nation, former prime minister Scott Morrison, does not emerge well, from start to finish, from Holmes’ inquiry.
Morrison’s rhetoric about a “crackdown on welfare cheats” who were “rorting the system”, and the concept of himself as a welfare cop “contributed to a certain atmosphere in which any proposals responsive to his request would be developed”.
Holmes found Morrison subsequently “allowed cabinet to be misled” about whether the scheme would require legislative change. And when Morrison eventually spent time in the royal commission’s witness box last year, Holmes concluded that some of his evidence was untrue.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was safe from any accusation of exaggeration when he declared Holmes had exposed a gross betrayal and a human tragedy that should never have happened and should never happen again.
“We’ve arrived at the truth because of the courage of the most vulnerable Australians … which stands in stark contrast to those who tried to shift the blame and carry on justifying the shocking harm,” he said.
When asked whether Morrison should resign, Albanese said that was a matter for Morrison himself.
He was being kind.
Morrison, who rejected the findings, is the last MP still in parliament among those who got the most attention from Holmes: former ministers Alan Tudge, Christian Porter and Stuart Robert have all departed the political stage.
Morrison might have been powerful once, the feared welfare cop on the beat.
Holmes’ report, we might reflect, has all but reversed his standing, swapping his status with those who were once hounded by the robo-debt scheme.
He seems reduced to little more than a costly inconvenience.
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