Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Robo-debt: a government-sanctioned debt sentence

An inconvenient truth rocked the Morrison government this week when it was finally brought to some account over the long-running robo-debt scandal.

The whole sorry saga demonstrates how far this cabinet and its leader have strayed from a conventional understanding of ministerial accountability.

Consider this: the settlement of the robo-debt class action, the biggest in Australian history, will require the Commonwealth to restore more than $1.2 billion to 400,000 citizens it illegally pursued for alleged social security overpayments. Yet not one of the four ministers involved has resigned.

Don’t imagine the architect of the scheme, the prime minister himself, doesn’t realise how big a disaster this is. Scott Morrison went to great lengths to create a diversion, knowing the robo-debt story would break this week. Official prime ministerial trips overseas create their own news, so what better way to counterbalance coverage of massive and wilful government incompetence?

A well-placed source says Morrison took the Japanese government by surprise when he informed it he would fly to Tokyo to sign “an in-principle agreement” on a long-negotiated defence co-operation arrangement. The negotiations, still not concluded, began when Tony Abbott was prime minister. The fact this trip was organised in the middle of a pandemic raised eyebrows.

Morrison flew out of Melbourne on Monday night. Upon his arrival in Tokyo, the new Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, was bemused by his counterpart’s Australian flag face mask. It was masks all round, and strict Covid-19 protocols, as Japan struggles to contain its second wave.

The prime minister returned to Australia on Wednesday night and began a 14-day quarantine at The Lodge in Canberra. Next week, he will attend question time via a video link. But neither he nor his ministers can be quarantined from the fallout of a scheme they pursued despite numerous warnings it was illegal.

Before he left for Tokyo, Morrison played the hero. He made a virtue of the $720 million already paid back to robo-debt victims, acting as if even that was not done under duress. He claimed the “income averaging principle” is one long followed by Labor and Liberal governments. A claim that conveniently ignored that, before he turbocharged the crackdown on welfare recipients, this averaging was only a marker, which then was checked by human compliance officers.

Morrison as treasurer forecast $2.1 billion would be recovered in the robo-debt crackdown, a sum that would help him on the way to restoring the federal budget to surplus. There is no doubt it also played politically into the “welfare cheat” stereotype. But as the letters went out in their thousands, complaints began to mount that people were being asked to pay debts they didn’t owe.

By then, Christian Porter was Social Services minister and was splitting hairs, as is his way. The 169,000 robo-debt letters sent out in just six months in 2016 were “review letters”, he said, not letters of demand. And he told RN Breakfast that the “high-volume system” was “working incredibly well”.

Alan Tudge, the Human Services minister at the time, went on A Current Affair to threaten jail for people who owed Centrelink money. “We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison,” he said.

Court documents in the class action showed the government had seen at least 76 robo-debts set aside when they were challenged in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The automated income averaging was found to reverse the onus of proof and was illegal. The government never challenged these decisions in court for fear of setting a legal precedent. It did, however, abruptly end the AAT career of Terry Carney, who had upheld the original five robo-debt complaints.

After Labor’s defeat at last year’s election, Bill Shorten was handed the Government Services portfolio to shadow. He encouraged Gordon Legal to pursue a class action against the scheme, building on the work of Victoria Legal Aid. Shorten says this was the only way to really hold the government to account. It’s a sad indictment on the way governments can manipulate the numbers in parliament to avoid scrutiny and bury issues.

Shorten and the chair of the senate inquiry into the fiasco, Rachel Siewert of the Greens, are now calling for a royal commission. Shorten says he doesn’t ever want to see again “where computers take over the people”. He disdainfully refers to the Morrison government as “the mob who just want to blame the poor for all the problems and imply that somehow if you’re on Centrelink, you’re second class and you’re ripping the system off”.

The current Government Services minister, Stuart Robert, taking his cue from his close mate Scott Morrison, is claiming credit for stopping the scheme last year because of “concerns about the sufficiency of using this longstanding practice”. It was too much for the interviewer on Sky News, Laura Jayes, who accused Robert of post-truth politics.

The government created the robo-debt problem, spent millions on legal battles to keep it out of the public domain and, even as it surrendered on Monday, settled out of court to again protect its ministers from scrutiny. It also insisted that it accepted no liability for the pain and hurt caused to thousands of people. Robert denies any robo-debt causality for the suicides some relatives have linked to the scheme.

Shorten says a crocodile wouldn’t swallow the government’s defence. On the one hand, they make no admissions of liability, while on the other they are going to pay $1.2 billion to 400,000 people. “It wouldn’t pass Mr Morrison’s pub test,” Shorten says.

There is speculation in Canberra that Morrison will move Robert out of the Government Services portfolio in his end-of-year cabinet reshuffle. Surely a promotion isn’t warranted. Robert tried to cover up the cruel mess Morrison’s creation had become, and in doing so he only made matters expensively worse. In his Sky News interview Robert seemed eager to share the blame with his ally Morrison.

Robert said the prime minister had already apologised on behalf of the nation’s parliament. A curious way of putting it, as though everyone in parliament were responsible. “And I certainly join him in that apology,” Robert added. They certainly both have something to apologise for.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence but the cabal of ministers involved in robo-debt have a habit of being embroiled in ugly controversy. Tudge and Porter most recently were caught up in allegations of bullying or sexual harassment of women. Tudge has apologised, although he faces a Finance Department investigation. Porter has denied allegations of a drunken display of affection with a young Liberal staffer in a Canberra bar.

The Porter denials have drawn a strong rebuttal from ABC Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan, who has said on Twitter that she has five witnesses prepared to back her report in court. The attorney-general appears to have thought the better of acting on his threat to launch defamation proceedings. But it’s certainly not a good look for the attorney-general of Australia to have his truthfulness challenged so strongly.

Four Corners’ exposé on a culture of misogyny and bullying in the “Canberra bubble” has set the hares running. Other women have come forward to the ABC program and there is more to follow. It’s not confined to one side of politics, with Labor women also supporting the call for better protection of political staffers.

An anonymous “shit sheet” accusing a senior woman in Anthony Albanese’s office of bullying staff, posted online this week, drew an angry reaction from the Labor leader. He described the attack on Sabina Husic, his deputy chief of staff, as “fake”. Husic had been on medical leave. The accusations, picked up and reported without checking for veracity by some media outlets, led Husic to quit her job and complain to The Sydney Morning Herald of the “false, fake and defamatory attack” on her character.

Also this week, a false attack on the character of the lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, flared back into the headlines. Following 150 complaints to his office, the Commonwealth ombudsman, Michael Manthorpe, said he believes the Australian Federal Police should have made “direct contact” with Energy Minister Angus Taylor or his office before ending their investigation.

Taylor similarly had a bad week with two think tanks – the Grattan Institute and The Australia Institute – savaging his plans for a “gas-led recovery”. Both found it won’t lead to cheaper energy for consumers and that claims of the needs of manufacturing are wildly overblown. Taylor dismissed their views as narrowly based. He may be right: they found the policy is largely driven by the needs of a couple of multinational energy conglomerates.

This minister is in the habit of denying facts that don’t suit his purpose, such as his involvement in a family company embroiled in a land management scandal. Nothing has come of allegations he attempted to have the Environment minister bend the rules for the company.

Still, the minister for Emissions Reduction, who is not doing much of that, will almost certainly survive in the portfolio. After all, he is merely delivering what his prime minister wants, just as Stuart Robert is.

Anthony Albanese has a point when he says “once again” nobody is responsible for anything. So much for the Westminster doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "A government-sanctioned debt sentence".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.