It’s been a while since Australian politics saw an act as gutless as Scott Morrison’s on Friday.
Mere minutes after the prime minister finished another of his interminable post-national cabinet monologues and walked away from journalists, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert issued a media release revealing one of the most expensive backflips in Commonwealth history. The government would repay at least $720 million in fake debts it had “raised” against welfare recipients under the now discredited robodebt scheme.
At a media conference conveniently on the Gold Coast, rather than before the same journalists Morrison had just walked out on, Robert tried to claim he’d moved quickly to address the scheme’s flaws: “the information presented to me saw a change in November, I acted swiftly on behalf of the government to pause debt recovery and to refine the system.”
Robert refused to apologise to the 373,000 victims (at a minimum) of the scheme. Christian Porter, appearing on the ABC yesterday, also refused to apologise. Both at least fronted the cameras. Scott Morrison ran away.
This was Scott Morrison’s scheme, one he — the former social services minister — proudly boasted about as treasurer in the 2016 election campaign, claiming it would pump billions into the budget bottom line.
Now it’s fodder for a Friday afternoon garbage dump, with junior ministers sent out to publicly eat the shit sandwich.
It’s unlikely the scheme will ever generate a single cent of additional revenue, given the repayment, the likely compensation, the legal costs associated with a number of cases, and the extraordinary costs of implementing the supposedly automated scheme, including the siccing of debt collectors onto innocent welfare recipients.
Morrison and his colleagues, and the Social Services public servants who devised and implemented the scheme, will be hoping to avoid accountability for the debacle, which goes back to a single fact: there was always a serious question mark over the legality of the mechanism at the heart of robodebt, income averaging.
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The government gave up pretending income averaging was lawful last November, just before settling the case brought by Deanna Amato in the Federal Court. Robert is trying to pretend that that was when the penny dropped about income averaging, and the government is refusing to say how long it knew about the lack of a legal basis for its flagship savings measure.
As is now well documented, however, the lack of a lawful basis was clear from early on. Social security law expert Matthew Butt raised serious questions about the legality of income averaging in early 2017, noting the limitations on its use under legislation and that Human Services’ own guidelines recommend that averaging be used selectively.
Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) member Terry Carney found that there was no legal basis for the debts raised at the same time, in decisions the government declined to appeal. The government instead dumped Carney from the tribunal while it stacked it with former Coalition MPs, staffers and party members.
Why did public servants prepare and implement a scheme they knew had a strong chance of being found unlawful? Was legal advice sought? Or did Social Services, like the Department of Health in the sports rorts scandal, refuse to obtain legal advice it knew would show there was no legal basis for the proposed actions?
The financial cost of the debacle is only one aspect. Robodebt needlessly inflicted misery and anxiety of hundreds of thousands of Australians. The number of suicides caused by the receipt of automatically generated debt letters is unlikely to ever be known.
Throughout, the bureaucrats involved have sought to stymie or evade accountability. In the most recent round of Senate estimates hearings, departmental officials like Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell refused to provide basic information, like the number of victims of income averaging, to a Senate committee.
Similar obfuscation is likely to be used against attempts by the Senate to establish the crucial issue of how much Social Services knew about the unlawfulness of income averaging when the scheme was crafted in 2015, what advice was sought and what was communicated to the minister.
The only effective mechanism for determining that is a judicial inquiry or royal commission, in which the likes of Campbell and her offsiders like Annette Musolino will be unable to take questions on notice or hide behind ministers.
It’s pro forma to call for a royal commission into any minor scandal these days, but the case for a judicial inquiry into the debacle is compelling. It would be able to examine not merely the issue of what was known about the unlawfulness of the scheme, but the human cost of the scheme, the government’s use of private debt collectors to pursue victims, the release of the private information of Andie Fox by departmental officials when she dared to criticise the scheme (disgustingly defended by Campbell, Musolino and other officials in 2018), the government’s legal strategy of avoiding appealing AAT decision if they might lead to exposure of the unlawfulness of the scheme, and behaviour in Centrelink’s “debt recovery offices”.
Morrison can try to run away from his debacle, but serious questions about why a government embarked on an unlawful campaign to immiserate hundreds of thousands of Australians will remain.
What did you make of the government’s Friday afternoon robodebt backflip? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.