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Robodebt Royal Commission reveals stupidity as best defence

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The Robodebt RC brought out the stupid in people such as Alan Tudge, Kathryn Campbell and Jason McNamara (Screenshots via YouTube)

The Robodebt Royal Commission saw ministers and public servants play dumb and make a mockery of the justice sought by victims, writes Michael Galvin.

UPON THE FINAL DAY of hearings for the Robodebt Royal Commission, a conga line of former ministers and senior public servants used every trick in the book to avoid responsibility for one of the most damaging and absurd programs ever inflicted by the Federal Government on a million of its citizens directly, not to mention their families and friends.

Before Robodebt, the Government was checking up on about 20,000 social security recipients a year. During Robodebt, the Government was issuing compliance notices at the rate of 20,000 a week. And tens, if not hundreds of thousands, were finding out from commercial debt collectors that they owed debts to the Commonwealth which they were unaware of, in most cases being inaccurately, as well as illegally, calculated by “robogov”. (Computers run by robotic public servants were doing the dirty work.)

This piece is a commentary on what was learned from watching about 20 hours of the RC hearings, as well as reading transcripts and other reports. Nearly all of the senior and mid-level public servants giving evidence to the Commission were profiles in cowardice, obfuscation and self-defence. During these hearings, any sign of regret for the suffering inflicted by their actions or inactions on their fellow citizens was as rare as a snowball in hell.

It was sickening to behold. And terrifying to realise that these people are/were in the top echelons of the Australian Public Service. Any citizen wanting to believe in the competence, let alone integrity, of the mandarins in Canberra – and their senior apparatchiks – would do well to avoid the evidence presented to the RC altogether. It is disillusioning and disappointing. Based on these folks’ appearances, no responsible parent would encourage their child to ever think of this as an honourable career path.

When these public servants were presented with evidence for which they were either responsible for reprehensible behaviour, or at least complicit in implementing it, it was up to them to admit responsibility or at least concede some complicity. Most of them chose a third escape route: stupidity. Yes, in order to save their own skins, they were prepared to look like idiots under questioning. This involved multiple refusals to see the wood for the trees and multiple attempts to misconstrue the question so that their answers could not be used against them.

Some of them turned their ability to obfuscate to protect their own backsides into an art form. They were obviously well experienced at this. One of the reasons I am not naming names here and confining myself to general statements is that I doubt they would stop at anything in order to destroy their critics if they felt so inclined.

For most of my own career, I was a middle manager academic in a university department. Among my peers, we would watch with amazement as some people got promoted far beyond their actual abilities. We would use the phrase “managing up” to describe such disreputable types, up to and including the occasional vice-chancellor. They might be inflicting hell on the staff and students below them, but they had the skill set required to hide any of this from their own managers and instead, managed to impress their superiors enough to continually get promoted.

Many of the public servants appearing before the Commission appeared of this type, skillfully ensuring no mud ever stuck to their shoes as one promotion after another ensued. So many of them seemed to embody the Peter principle, promoted beyond their level of competence.

If my judgments seem a little harsh, then it is worth reading the transcript of Kathryn Campbell’s evidence on 7 March, the third time she was called before the Commission. It is a textbook study of passive-aggressive behaviour, as a perusal of any of the transcript readily shows.

Campbell had been secretary of both departments involved – Human Services and then Social Services – during the Robodebt debacle, although you would be hard-pressed to know it from the evidence she gave, the theme of which was either she didn't know what was going on, or she didn't turn her mind to it. As noted above, the stupidity card was played, no matter how desperate it seemed. Even when presented with evidence from within her own department that the program was out of control, she showed about the same irritation as if she was flicking a mosquito off her arm. It was scary.

And yet she was the senior public servant responsible for Robodebt for most of its ignominious existence, which eventually resulted in a settlement requiring $1.8 billion from the Commonwealth. Readers wishing to observe Campbell’s personal style in action might wish to watch this short clip from a Senate Estimates Committee in 2020.

Yet she kept getting promoted, until her time as Foreign Affairs boss was terminated by the new government a month after being elected in 2022. But no matter, she can still afford her mortgage given she remains on her previous salary of nearly $900,000.

And her new job? An adviser to the AUKUS nuclear submarine project, with responsibility for sensitive negotiations with international partners and suppliers. And no one reporting to her. Quite a change from being in charge of the Department of Human Services with around 30,000 staff, a number she alluded to several times in her final day of evidence to the Commission.

According to the Financial Review, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong got rid of Campbell from the department but then appointed her to head up the newly created Advanced Strategic Research Agency, coordinating new defence technologies with its high-level counterparts in the USA and UK. The mind boggles.

Michael Galvin is an adjunct fellow at Victoria University and a former media and communications academic at the University of South Australia.

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