Australian government accepts Robodebt Royal Commission recommendations

By on 14/11/2023 | Updated on 14/11/2023
Image by John Schnobrich via Unsplash

The Australian government has accepted the recommendations of the Robodebt Royal Commission and committed to funding their implementation as well as to improving public trust.

The commission’s report, delivered in July this year, offered 56 recommendations, all of which the government has accepted in full or in principle.

The government clarified that where it agreed in principle, it was “committed to achieve the objective of the recommendation but has either identified an alternative means of doing so, or considers that further consideration is needed”.

Eight recommendations relate to improving the Australian Public Service (APS), including an immediate and full review of the structure of the social services portfolio; clearer training and guidance on the obligations of public servants; and a renewed look at customer service.

Addressing APS employees, the government said: “Your work matters. Your integrity matters. Each day dedicated to public service is a day dedicated to working for Australians and making their lives better.”

Robodebt was an automated debt recovery system in operation between 2015 and 2019 under the previous administration, which burdened more than 400,000 people with inflated or non-existent debts.

It has been linked to mental health illnesses in vulnerable citizens and was described by the author of the commission’s report, Catherine Holmes, as “an extraordinary saga” illustrative of “venality, incompetence and cowardice”.

The commission said Robodebt was a “crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals. In essence, people were traumatised on the off-chance they might owe money. It was a costly failure of public administration, in both human and economic terms”.

Read more: Australian Public Service chief promises ‘focus on integrity’

The government condemned Robodebt and said it was “not an innocent mistake”.

“To this day, people who served as senior cabinet ministers in the former government… maintain that ‘[w]hen the problems were brought to the attention of the government at the time, the programme was stopped’.

“Such claims are demonstrably false and an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Australians harmed by the Robodebt scheme” most of whom it said were targeted after the point at which the scheme’s “unfairness, probable illegality and cruelty became apparent”.

The government’s commitments to the recommendations form part of a renewed effort to improve public trust, deliver strong institutions and invest in what it outlined as “a capable public sector [to] ensure people are at the centre of policy development and government service delivery”.

Investigations ongoing

It was reported earlier this week that investigations into a possible breach of the public service code of conduct in relation to Robodebt remained inconclusive. Katy Gallagher, the country’s public service minister, said no timeline was set to finalise the investigations, and cabinet members were unable to specify possible sanctions or disciplinary actions issued to public servants for their part in Robodebt.

Gallagher said investigations were being led by Dr Gordon de Brouwer, Australia’s public service commissioner and that an independent reviewer and a sanctions reviewer had been appointed to ensure a “fair and just process”. It is understood De Brouwer is investigating 16 public servants referred to him.

In October, De Brouwer acknowledged in the Australian Public Service Commission’s (APSC) annual report that the APS had experienced difficulties in coming to terms with the fallout of the scandal.

The Royal Commission’s report blamed structural features of the APS for the way Robodebt was created and maintained, including a separation of responsibilities between agencies, and vague definitions of the responsibilities assigned to them.

It said the scheme “was put together on an ill-conceived, embryonic idea and rushed to cabinet”.

Read more: Reckoning for Australian Public Service in wake of Robodebt report

Sealed and undelivered

In a sealed section separate to its report, the Royal Commission named individuals that could be considered for referral for criminal prosecution by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The sealed section has drawn criticism for appearing to keep the referrals separate from the disciplinary process. In July this year, Anthony Whealy KC, a former New South Wales Supreme Court judge and integrity campaigner, said that the public was “entitled to know” the names on the referrals, calling the sealed section “a block on what are well known as the principles of open justice”.

“The commission has the power to make referrals to various disciplinary or criminal agencies, and until we know exactly what it’s done in that regard, we don’t see the finished product, and therefore, I think, you know, there’s a certain air of dissatisfaction with that aspect of the outcome,” he said.

However, Holmes warned against submitting the sealed section to parliament, saying that this could prejudice “any future civil action or criminal prosecution”. 

The Robodebt scheme has previously been subject to investigations by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, two Senate committee inquiries, and several legal challenges.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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