Law Analysis

Robodebt crimes: Who should pay and how?

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Even when we consider Robodebt as dispassionate onlookers – that is, people who did not have a loved one take their own life, or otherwise have their lives irreparably marred by this vicious campaign – it is not possible to see it as anything but a crime against humanity.

And it was not a benign mistake.

And it was not a one-off thing.

We knew this back in 2017 when the first reports of the unfairness of the scheme emerged but were ignored.

We knew this when the Federal Court pronounced it unlawful a full two years later, in 2019.

And we knew it when the Morrison Government forged ahead, anyway, seemingly unperturbed by its illegality, let alone its devastating effects, even when these were detailed by legal professionals and publicly called out by the Australian Council of Social Services.

Approximately 443,000 people received these threatening notices demanding payment known as "robodebts". Victims were not even able to speak to anyone about their alleged debt and should someone actually manage to get a phone call through to the right department, all the relevant public servants were ordered to refer them back to the website. Never mind that they may not be able to navigate this process, or that their questions would likely still be ignored.

So the threats continued. And let’s not beat around the bush, here. These were threats. Meant to be taken seriously. Designed to be menacing.

The harassment continued unabated. In fact, even after the unfairness of the debt scam became evident, the number of debt notices increased to 2,000 per week, issued with added penalties for default, accompanied by repeated intimidating follow-up phone calls at home and at people’s workplaces, with sheriffs turning up at their door and with very real threats of imprisonment.

And then there were the public shamings, engineered by the sharing of personal information about the victims, of which these loan sharks were in possession, with “friendly media”, who willingly complied by splashing intimate information across their pages and websites and “news” reports — all now forever tainted with the suffering of these souls and their loved ones.

We say loan sharks, because surely no democratically elected government would treat its own citizens in this way? Actually, even most loan sharks have higher standards.

And we say “friendly” because this is how the media cartel assisting the perpetrators was termed by the first person to admit it at the Royal Commission, Rachelle Miller. Obviously, hostile and unfeeling akin to mafia henchmen would be more appropriate in this case, but we digress.

We knew all this. And a few of us reported it from the outset, despite government threats, which we received specifically, though not only, for our Robodebt articles.

But now, Commissioner Catherine Holmes’ report has confirmed all the above and there can no longer be any doubt that:

'Robodebt 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.'

The report recommends referrals of certain individuals for civil and criminal prosecution. These are contained in a sealed section 'so as not to prejudice the conduct of any future civil action or criminal prosecution'.

So, who were the leaders of this criminal gang and how should they pay?

For now, we know that four key MPs were chiefly responsible for Robodebt: Scott Morrison, who engineered the scheme and Christian Porter, Alan Tudge and Stuart Robert, who presided over it and ensured its continued menacing presence. 

None of these has accepted responsibility or shown remorse. 

Scott Morrison continues to smirk, deny, deflect and dog whistle his way out of any questions that come his way. But this is hardly surprising, given he has never taken responsibility for even one of the myriad of monumental failures of his Government, even as PM.

Christian Porter blamed a person or persons unknown, telling the Royal Commission he "couldn't recall who" but "somebody" assured him it was legal.

Alan Tudge told the Royal Commission he was not responsible for his department’s failure to check if the scheme was legal or not.

In case anyone has forgotten, these were Tudge's words directed at people to whom his department sent illegal debt notices:

“We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.” 

It was also Tudge's department that leaked personal information about the victims to the so-called "friendly media".

And Stuart Robert "doubled down" with the scheme even when it was revealed people were being driven to suicide. Robert also recently resigned, pending the findings of the Royal Commission, forcing the by-election in Fadden this coming Saturday. 

Then, there are several key public servants and executives from associate consultancy firms such as PwC. Perhaps the most obvious one here is Cathryn Campbell, who, inconceivably, is still employed by the Federal Government, despite her monumental failure over Robodebt and subsequent absence of remorse.

And lastly, there's the media mafia, who knew what we knew but failed to report it. Worse, they chose to vilify the victims, spreading details about their personal lives and painting them as criminals, and willingly published false information in support of the Government's talking points justifying an unlawful scheme.

Well, when people commit heinous crimes, they are usually sent to prison, receive a criminal record against their name and face public shaming. Realistically though, we know criminal prosecution is an unlikely outcome for the key perpetrators of this illegal scam.

With gaol sentences a slim possibility, then, perhaps they can at least have criminal records recorded against them?

Criminal convictions in Australia impact many day-to-day activities. People with criminal records cannot hold a position with the public service, the police, child-related work or work with vulnerable groups, for example. Police checks are also regularly performed for bank loans, rental housing applications and many other types of employment.

As well, people who commit crimes are prevented from profiting from their illegal activities in Australia. Which means, no more chatting up to the “friendly media”, selling their stories for book deals and appearing on Sky After Dark, or in daylight hours, for payment.

It is also possible that victims could personally seek civil compensation against the ministers and organisations responsible.

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten told ABC's 7.30:

“I do not know why Coalition ministers, with that sort of very, very damning analysis by the royal commission, why they think when the commissioner says there’s a tort of malfeasance in public office, why they think that people, victims won’t sue them individually.” 

Given the number of illegal notices sent out, this would likely lead to bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means they cannot start their own business for at least three years. 

At the very least, people who wilfully carry out crimes against humanity should be repentant. We know not one of the above appears to feel any remorse for their actions.

So, finally, it is up to us to do our civic duty. We must keep sharing as much information about this criminal gang as loudly and publicly as possible. If this means they are discriminated against in employment, housing, business, selling their stories to the media and other opportunities such that they require assistance from Centrelink, well, that would be poetic justice.

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You can follow IA managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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