If institutional injustice makes you mad this episode had it in spades. Robodebt: What the Royal Commission revealed to us. A government and a bunch of ministers who saw themselves as ‘welfare cops’, with a duty to shake down the most vulnerable among us. Without fear or favour these sheriffs took on pensioners, disabled Australians, and those down on their luck. They applied income averaging to make it look like these people on the bones of their arse were rorting the system. It played well to those who are always looking for someone to blame for their own financial frustrations.
Welfare Cops on the Robodebt Beat
Scott Morrison, Stuart Robert, and Alan Tudge all had their hands on the tiller and steered the Robodebt ship from 2014 -2019. Morrison was gung ho about raising revenue from those on welfare.
“And then there was the political context. Morrison had declared his desire to be the “welfare cop” in a series of interviews, starting with a Sky News interview on 21 January 2015. In evidence to the commission Campbell acknowledged that interview was a signal about where Morrison wanted to take the portfolio.”
- (Luke Henriques-Gomes, 11 March 2023, The Guardian Australia)
The little fact that the scheme was illegal, according to government lawyers, was no deterrent for these righteous prosecutors. The onus was put on the accused welfare recipient to prove that he or she didn’t owe the thousands of dollars averaged out by an algorithm. Computer power, AI if you like, was at the heart of Robodebt. The machine don’t make mistakes folks! Actually, income averaging produced amounts that were wildly wrong and created debts that were not there in fact, according to the government’s own welfare rules. Hundreds of thousands of Australians had 3 weeks to respond to the letter informing them of their debt before the debt collectors were sent in.
Royal Commission Shines Spotlight on Robodebt Failings
Some vulnerable people accused of large debts killed themselves. Yes, Australians died at the hands of the Robodebt scheme instigated by the Coalition government. Public servants repeatedly ignored the illegality of the scheme and were the gun dogs for ‘welfare cops’ like Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, and Stuart Robert. Dole bludgers were copping their just desserts in the eyes of the conservative press. Alan Tudge actually leaked personal details of those among the welfare recipients who had the courage to take on the government. Gaslighting and backgrounding were employed by Tudge’s department to diminish the credibility of opponents of the scheme. Australia had become like Nazi Germany or Russia, it seems.
5 years of illegal income averaging caused untold damage to people’s lives and their reputations. Ordinary Australians were told they were welfare cheats and forced to pay back huge sums of money. Eventually, the illegality of the Robodebt scheme would topple it. A class action was settled at the cost of some $1.8 billion to Australian tax payers. A succession of public servants in social security and human services departments ignored legal advice and the collateral damage caused by this scheme. Who will be held accountable? I hear you ask. Don’t hold your breath, as Australia does not have a great record when it comes to accountability.
“ “The Australian Public Service is under obligation to give frank and fearless advice, and that was the most common failure that drove all of this: the failure of careerist public servants to speak out, to show the courage that their frontline staff, their whistleblowers were showing at an enormous personal cost to themselves.”
- (Alexander Lewis, 11 March 2023, ABC News)
Robodebt: What the Royal Commission revealed. The backroom boys and girls, these senior bureaucrats, were more motivated by job security than raising their heads above the parapet to give frank and fearless advice. I can’t remember the last time I have witnessed frank and fearless behaviour by a government public servant.
A popular conservative narrative is that Australia is full of welfare cheats and dole bludgers. Coalition politicians dog whistle up these tropes in the Murdoch media whenever they can. Like most such tropes the factual instances of such things are tiny or largely non-existent. Most Australians just want a decent job or an even break, when it comes to their livelihood. The Robodebt scheme was a gross misuse of power. It was illegal and incorrect in both its formation and application. Poor Australians receiving welfare are low hanging fruit for institutional power. Poor people don’t have the money to afford lawyers to defend their rights. The welfare cops beat up on weak, disabled, and really old Australians. This is the most shameful example of governmental abuse in Australia’s history. Scott Morrison, Alan Tudge, and Stuart Robert should be held accountable for the damage to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians.