Politics Analysis

No accountability or public shaming for Robodebt criminals: FLASHBACK 2023

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(Image by Dan Jensen)

Robodebt victims have been left outraged at the national corruption watchdog's decision to avoid an investigation into the perpetrators of the illegal and lethal scheme.

In this article from 2023, managing editor Michelle Pini discussed who was to blame for Robodebt and how they escaped accountability.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

If public trust is to be restored, at the very least, the people responsible for this major breach of the law, the illegal Robodebt scheme, should face the hardest penalties available under our legal system.

Those of us who have been able to stomach the cold, dispassionate display from the parade of key perpetrators giving evidence on their criminal conduct at the Robodebt Royal Commission are left depleted and disgusted beyond measure.

Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten read out a few of the victims' gut-wrenching stories In Parliament:

  • 'I received a request from Centrelink...for me to prove I had not been overpaid by them for what was deemed to be approximately $6,000. I've had severe headaches, I'm in constant pain from my surgery and arthritis. I've had suicidal thoughts due to this supposed debt. With my anxiety up, my body pain up, some days I can't even get out of bed.'
  • Jenny was pursued by Robodebt. It was alleged she was overpaid over $3000...Jenny could not prove her earnings as her former employer paid her in cash and did not issue payslips. During the claimed overpayment period, Jenny's daughter took her own life. Jenny found it hard to provide instructions during that period. She has a diagnosis of PTSD. 
  • One worker at Centrelink said: 
    'I wanted to kill myself with a letter to tell the public what is happening. I still cry every day. I feel responsible for the deaths of others. I cannot get some phonecalls out of my head.'
  • Another worker wrote:
    'The impact on my personal life was enormous. I took three months long service leave. I ended up in the outpatients services of a psychiatric unit. '
  • And another:
    'I remember talking to a client whose debt was $5,000. He was telling me the best thing he could do was to go onto the train tracks and lay down.
    It was very distressing to hear him and all the other customers on the brink of suicide.'

Let’s not mince words, the conduct of responsible government ministers and high-level public servants (an oxymoron in this context) is nothing short of egregious.

If an ounce of remorse had managed to escape the lips of Stuart Robert, Alan Tudge, Scott Morrison, Kathryn Campbell or Jason McNamara we would scarcely have noticed. For it would be eclipsed by the avalanche of sheer contempt, callous disregard and refusal to accept responsibility for their actions. 

Actions that we know led to the deaths of at least 2,030 Australians. Actions that directly destroyed the lives of thousands upon thousands of others.

Actions, which we reported as far back as 2017 and about which we received threatening emails from the Morrison Government for our trouble.

Back in 2018, former Victorian Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert KC raised objections and agitated for the Robodebt scheme to be declared unlawful, which eventually occurred in November 2019.

Today, when we watch these witnesses admit to the Royal Commission that they lied, ignored evidence or “didn’t turn their minds”  to Robodebt’s illegality or its devastation and, instead, willfully carried on regardless, we can easily imagine the perpetrators of this unlawful scheme to be at home at the Nuremberg Trials. 

Their behaviour is nothing short of criminal, in some cases, verging on sociopathic.

One such example comes from this Twitter thread which captures the robotic, contemptuous answers of former Secretary Department of Human Services Kathryn Campbell AO:

JUSTIN GREGGERY KC: Why did you continue to implement a scheme where you knew the potential was that money was being recovered which was not in fact owed?

KATHRYN CAMPBELL: I didn't turn my mind to it...

GREGGERY: Mr Cauzzo [who later suicided] had a Job Capacity Assessment in 2015 for his DSP claim; he reported suicidal ideation.

Despite Centrelink having all that information, no vulnerability indicator was recorded, why not?

CAMPBELL: I don't know. That person made a mistake...

GREGGERY: Nowhere do you say, the standard process should be a full investigation?

CAMPBELL: No, but we did have reviews. Sadly, suicides are common.

The number of people who were paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to "turn their minds" to exactly such matters but somehow didn't manage to perform even this basic task, is simply beyond belief. 

"I didn't turn my mind to it" is clearly standard advice from their equally highly paid counsel on how to handle any potentially difficult question in which they would likely incriminate themselves should they provide a straight answer. 

As Bill Shorten stated in Parliament this week:

The Member for Fadden gave a personal explanation to the House. He said he stopped Robodebt. There was no acknowledgement of anyone else. He says he took action, he sought legal advice ... because he had "substantial misgivings".

Leaving aside this recollection has been contested at the Royal Commission, just think for a moment about [Robert's] version of events.

He waited 155 days. If you have substantial misgivings, do you wait 155 days? I wonder how many debts were issued in the period of "substantial misgivings".

It also emerged that vital evidence of the unlawfulness of the scheme was withheld from the Ombudsman.

When shown evidence of the illegality of the scheme which had been withheld by the Coalition Government from her investigation, an emotional former Commonwealth Ombudsman official Louise Macleod broke down:

LOUISE MACLEOD: I feel like a failure.

COMMISSIONER HOLMES: Why should you feel like a failure, when clearly you raised a lot of important issues that just weren't taken up?

MACLEOD: Because I couldn't convince others.

It seems likely that Commissioner Catherine Holmes' report will be damning. Hopefully, the Commissioner will also recommend that at least some of the perpetrators of this unlawful scheme, who showed such callous disregard for the consequences of their actions, should be prosecuted.

In an exclusive interview, Gavin Silbert KC told IA:

"Dereliction of duty on this scale has never been seen before. Certainly, in a proper Westminister system, the responsible ministers should resign their parliamentary positions as they have been shown to be untrustworthy and unfit to continue in public office.

In the past, this would have already happened."

Unfortunately, even if Ms Holmes recommends further legal proceedings, Mr Silbert says:

While the absolute incompetence and obvious misconduct on behalf of ministers and public servants is breathtaking, there are very few legal consequences that can arise.

Misconduct in public office is a very difficult criminal offence to make out and seldom does the evidence reach the standard of proof necessary for conviction.

It is unlikely that anyone will face criminal charges.

And then we have Australia’s mainstream media coverage. Actually, we don’t have it, since, while all these revelations have been unfolding, our mainstream media club has been mostly running cover for these despicable humans.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of “news” outlets have done their darnedest to ignore, deflect, obfuscate and otherwise avoid reporting on this, the biggest, most openly corrupt Australian government scandal of our time. This week, trumped-up fears of wars with China, ongoing Dan Andrews hysteria and claims that Prime Minister Albanese – not former PM and Robodebt mastermind Morrison – is the most dangerous prime minister we ever had, dominate the Murdoch and Nine mastheads.

If we "turn our minds" back to the Pink Batts Royal Commission, in which four lives were tragically lost, and the level of media saturation that engendered, it is abundantly clear that these 2,030 lives are not equal. 

Just ten years on, under Coalition rule, our system of government, standards of integrity and the state of our Fourth Estate are unrecognisable. 

If public trust is to be restored, at the very least, the people responsible for this major breach of the law, the illegal Robodebt scheme, should face the hardest penalties available under our legal system.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36.

You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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