Politics Opinion

Robodebt scandal shows Australian Public Service in abject decline

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

The failure of government to prevent Robodebt is a timely reminder of the importance of a functioning and effective public service, writes Paul Begley.

MUCH OF THE discussion about the 'Royal Commission into the Robodebt Schemeon social media and in the parts of the mainstream media has centred on the apparent inability of senior Australian public service (APS) staff to perform the function expected of them as servants of the Australian people.

Through their evidence to the Commission, they have largely revealed themselves as relatively uninformed and powerless functionaries dancing to the tune of higher and often remorseless authorities.

A constant refrain was evidence that they were asked to attend high-level meetings at which critical decisions were progressed and for which they were unprepared or ill-informed. A typical example was the former national manager of compliance risk in the Department of Human Services (DHS), Scott Britton, who said he was inappropriately placed opposite Attorney-General Christian Porter at such a meeting. 

He claimed to have had little to contribute to the discussion. Still, at its conclusion, he was “required” by DHS Deputy Secretary Malisa Golightly to sign off on a critical delivery document to progress the Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program. This deeply flawed policy became known as Robodebt.

There are three features that stand out among most of the APS witnesses. One is their readiness to rely on advice from others, the second is their apparent incapacity to speak their mind and the third is their deference to an implacable authority, either a person at a higher level in the hierarchy or a subject matter expert at a lower level.

The picture that emerged was that of a conga line of well-remunerated functionaries with high-sounding titles who deferred to the primacy of process over any professional expertise they brought to their role.

Members of the APS all the way up the line bear responsibility for serving the government of the day while also being obliged to give the government frank and fearless advice. The latter sometimes requires the presentation of advice that a more senior person might not want to hear. and which could be perceived as unresponsive or uncooperative. This is even if that advice was intended to prevent the senior person, including a government minister, from heading down a path that would lead to regrettable misadventure.

The assurance of a lower-level subject-matter expert, such as a lawyer, might instil confidence, whereas the haughty confidence of a higher-level person might instil fear, notwithstanding former Secretary Renee Leon’s claim that no one was ever shot by her for raising a concern. In saying it in that way, Leon raised the likelihood that public servants were shot by other secretaries for raising concerns that could be taken as unresponsive to government objectives.

Leon also took up the other side of that coin by giving evidence about public service heads that were rewarded by being seen as agreeably responsive to government, citing the case of Kathryn Campbell being given, as a reward, a highly sought-after post in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade despite her lack of a background in diplomacy. Leon contrasted that with her own demotion in the employment portfolio because she heard from others that she was regarded as unresponsive to the minister in that she presented balanced reflections in her advice from both business and unions, for example.

To get a sense of how this malaise came to pass, we might look no further than the C1000 project. Leon set out the operational model of C1000, which in short was designed to replace around 1,000 APS staff with labour-hire appointees to deal with a surge in telephone calls arising from compliance matters. She noted that while labour-hire appointees had no experience to bring to the issues involved in social security compliance, they had the advantage of being less likely to raise problems because they were easy to dismiss if they were seen as “difficult”.

Leon acknowledged existing APS staff saw as insulting the fact that their deep knowledge and long experience were regarded as expendable, but it also had a chilling effect on their behaviour. Many APS staff saw that the government preferred employees who were relatively untrained in performing the frontline work of talking to social security recipients.

They also saw that the high level of turnover of labour-hire staff performing that function was not an impediment, nor was their inability to adopt a public-interest culture that assumed a readiness to understand the position of the “customer” in the context of delivering a critical safety-net program that had recently assumed a “welfare-cheat” overlay.

In summary, C1000 had a chilling effect among APS staff. If the government preferred staff who were relatively remote and uncaring in the way they performed their jobs, being a public servant who valued involvement and fulfilment in the performance of their work was no longer seen as career-enhancing behaviour.

This eventuality was not an accident. One of the first things Scott Morrison did when he became Prime Minister in 2018 was to give tokenistic support to Malcolm Turnbull’s Thodey Review of the APS, which was designed to boost the capability of the service, while at the same time replacing its functions with external consultants and labour-hire employees who brought to their roles no public-interest baggage.

That approach had served Morrison well in the immigration portfolio, where the offshore processing and administration of Manus Island and Nauru were carried out by outsourced firms whose employees were required to distance themselves from refugees, a requirement that finally became an instruction to call them by a number rather than a name.

While it might have been thought excusable to treat a few thousand undeserving non-citizens in that way, until the implementation of the OCI, such an approach had not been applied to Australian citizens. With the OCI, it became apparent that hundreds of thousands of social security recipients were deemed sufficiently unworthy to make assumptions about their readiness to behave as welfare cheats and to treat them with appropriate disdain until they proved themselves otherwise.

It’s a well-established practice among totalitarian regimes over time that a necessary requirement for the abusive treatment of fellow human beings, especially fellow citizens, is to call on a workforce that is sufficiently dispirited, diminished and deskilled. 

When the distinguished barrister Peter Hanks KC appeared at the Royal Commission as an outsider having searched in vain for an answer to the question as to how debts were raised against the fortnightly earnings of social security recipients using the method of averaging Australian Tax Office annualised data, he could only arrive at the conclusion that the debts were calculated by using a form of imagination or magic.

No public servant appearing at the Commission gave a superior explanation of the method than Hanks, yet witness after witness attempted to rationalise their participation in the OCI scheme as a powerless functionary simply following orders.

As for the politicians, with the exception of Christian Porter who claimed never to have understood how debts were raised despite attempts to find out and who accepted responsibility for not finding out, the likes of Alan Tudge, Stuart Robert and Scott Morrison were keen to push the fiction that debts had been calculated that way for decades, and no senior public official told them otherwise.

That fiction sat comfortably with a view that distinguished between deserving and undeserving Australians, and woe betides any jumped-up official who attempted to undermine that worldview. Former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, had made such an attempt with respect to refugees, and had been relentlessly assailed for having exercised her duty to speak frankly and fearlessly. 

Her public humiliation was an object lesson to public servants on the merits of keeping their heads down. The Robodebt Royal Commission has shown that many of them have learnt that lesson.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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