Robodebt saga shows need for frank and fearless public service

Last night, the robodebt royal commission heard from a true Australian legend.

Colleen Taylor was the Centrelink worker who in 2017 raised concerns within the Department of Human Services about robodebt.

She bravely said, “we should not be the ones stealing from our customers”.

When giving her evidence last night, Ms Taylor was honest, ethical and caring.

Her appearance came a day after two witnesses from the Community and Public Sector Union gave evidence at the royal commission.

The CPSU represents Department of Human Services workers. These were the staff on the frontline of administering the former government’s illegal debt recovery policy.

The testimony of national secretary of the CPSU, Melissa Donnelly, and former deputy national president Lisa Newman, was confronting to hear but critical. It revealed that DHS workers were also victims of this nasty policy.

Lisa Newman described DHS as a department in crisis with high staff turnover and absenteeism and low morale. As Ms Newman said, these workers deserved better.

DHS staff, the union and the debt recipients could see that something was very wrong with robodebt but their persistent and forthright protestations fell on deaf ears.

This is an emerging theme of the royal commission evidence. Alarm bells rang loud and long but nothing was done.

Today marks 18 days of hearings. They have been equal parts gut-wrenching, infuriating, bewildering and frustrating.

Yesterday, just before Ms Taylor, for the first time, we saw one of the architects of robodebt take the stand, Senator Marise Payne.

It should be noted that Senator Payne, who had responsibility for the Department of Human Services at the time, was not in Cabinet in 2015 when the earliest iteration of the scheme was agreed upon.

In her evidence yesterday, Ms Payne pointed out that the minister for social services at the time, Scott Morrison, was the senior portfolio and Cabinet minister.

While it was Senator Payne’s department which held the pen during the design and development of the policy, she said Mr Morrison met with the secretary of her department, Kathryn Campbell, and was highly engaged in the proposed welfare reforms that became robodebt.

Every day the royal commission has heard evidence, we’ve listened to people who had the power to stop this at various points along the way and yet did nothing.

Up until this week, the witnesses had been senior public servants and it has made for difficult viewing.

What I’m seeing on the witness stand is an Australian Public Service that was badly bruised during the Coalition years. That has to be remedied. The Albanese Government wants an APS that is empowered, not cowed.

We want a return to the frank and fearless advice that complements the role of the minister responsible. That’s how you get good policy.

We want people like Colleen Taylor, people who are unafraid to say what is right and what is wrong.

Not long after Scott Morrison won the 2019 election he addressed Australian Public Service leaders on this very issue. He told the assembled government employees at the Institute of Public Administration Australia that, while respecting their advice “responsibility for setting policy, for making those calls and decisions lies with the elected representatives of the people”.

Mr Morrison was absolutely right. Ministers are individually responsible to the Parliament for actions taken by the portfolio department and agencies which they oversee.

And it is long past time for Mr Morrison and his former ministerial colleagues to take responsibility for the cruel failure that is the robodebt scheme. Mr Morrison will have that opportunity when he takes the stand at the royal commission this week.

As the hearings of the royal commission have unfolded, I’ve been reminded of how the Trump administration turned on particular groups of Americans — migrants, Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQI+ community, the poor. It led to Trump’s critics using the catch phrase “the cruelty is the point” as the only explanation for his divisive policies.

Colleen Taylor pointed out the cruelty of the robodebt scheme. That was the point. Thanks for reminding Aussies the vast majority of our public servants are fair dinkum.

I’m sure this is not what motivated her, but she should get some of the medals that her bosses, both minister and senior public servants, were awarded.

On a totally separate point, my TV picks for today are the Argentina vs Croatia World Cup match and former Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the robodebt royal commission.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 14 December 2022.