Politics Analysis

Robodebt's privileged perpetrators shamefully punished the poor

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The Robodebt rogues' gallery included Christian Porter, Scott Morrison and Alan Tudge, who preyed on the poor with fatal consequences (Image by Dan Jensen)

Wealthy and privileged public servants and politicians all collaborated to demonise the poor and destroy people's lives with the Robodebt scheme, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

INDIVIDUAL STORIES of fear, intolerable intimidation suffering and hardship emerging from the Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme are both shocking and enraging.

Beyond this, what these heartbreaking accounts signify is that Australia is now a country in which successive governments and senior public servants in two government departments knowingly entered into a lengthy conspiracy to torment and fraudulently extract money from some of the most vulnerable and impoverished people in society.

We now know that highly paid public servants together with ministers of the crown and elected MPs, the embodiment of privilege every one of them, conspired to enact a program they knew to be illegal. That this was done in a manner designed to cause maximum fear and distress to those already struggling, should cause significant alarm in all of us.

These were powerful lawmakers breaking the law, enabled by public servants who sought to find ways to conceal, obfuscate and protect that illegality while continuing to terrify, in some instances to their deaths, those with the least power to fight back.

The moral abjection displayed by all those responsible for Robodebt is a chilling example of how a poisonous culture of cruelty and mendacity can take hold from the top down, and contaminate entire institutions.

In this contemporary Australian example of othering to justify ill-treatment, it is financially disadvantaged people who are cast as scapegoats — denigrated, demonised and dehumanised. The common denominator isn’t religion, ethnicity, gender or colour, but lack of financial resources.

If you’ve ever wondered how bureaucracy and political parties conspire to commit atrocities, the exposure of these departments as in cahoots with the then-L-NP Government is a home-grown demonstration of how such amoral situations come about.

The Departments of Human and Social Services were neither humane nor societal in their failed commitment to the public, but rather to the L-NP government of the day.

It is frightening that the public service has apparently abandoned its mission to this extent. The current Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, must urgently address this disintegration — democracy cannot be served by bureaucracies in thrall to the government of the day, rather than the public they are employed to serve.

That the Robodebt scheme was launched by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his ideology. Morrison was for many years the poster boy for an unholy alliance between neoliberalism and evangelical religious belief.

As I wrote in May 2019, after his self-styled “miraculous” election victory:

‘The toxic masculinity of neoliberalism meets the toxic masculinity of evangelical religion. Scott Morrison is the poster boy for both. Indeed, he is a new global Messiah of prosperity theology. This dark marriage of religion and capitalism is founded on exclusivity, exceptionalism and entitlement...’

It was and remains Morrison’s view that financial and material success is bestowed by God on those who are deserving of it. While other ministers responsible for Robodebt are not, at least overtly, motivated by religious belief, both former Attorney-General Christian Porter – who defended the Robodebt scheme despite being aware of its serious flaws – and former Minister for Social Services Alan Tudge are arguably driven by neoliberalist ideology that sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. To them, poverty is an individual failure, to be regarded with contempt.

“We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison,” Tudge threatened alleged debtors in 2016.

While driven by different motivators, these three men are on the same page, the page on which it is written that the poor are to be despised and punished for their poverty, and that poverty is a signifier of immorality, therefore the poor cannot be trusted.

It’s worth noting that Morrison stands accused of multiple acts of dishonesty and malfeasance, Tudge of sexual harassment and assault, while Porter remains an alleged rapist.

While it’s a relief that the illegality and wilful cruelty of the Robodebt enablers are now being publicly addressed, for many who suffered as a result of this scheme, it is too late. For the sake of every victim/survivor of this travesty, and for the sake of all our futures, collusion between the public service and the government of the day against any group of citizens for any reason must never again be permitted to occur. That way lies madness, as we know all too well.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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