Royal Commission shines torch on Robodebt injustice

Image by Dan Jensen

Contributed by Joe Montero

The Holmes Royal Commission has produced a damning report on Robodebt and presented 57 recommendations Robodebt has been confirmed as one of the biggest scandals in Australia history. Maybe it doesn’t offer a clear alternative. But at least it does help shine a torch on a great injustice and found that it was illegal.

A clear outline of how the victims were targeted and made examples of for accepting payments from Centrelink was given. As was how vilification, the hard to navigate process, and the assignment of blame without proof, were used as weapons.

Robodebt was not a mistake, nor was it the result of bad legal advice. This was a deliberate policy to play the blame game for failed economic and social government policies, and in line with the application of neoliberalism. Robodebt and the pain it brought were deliberately intended to force as many as possible into the cheap labour market.

Every indicator suggests a likely connection between corruption in politics and corruption in business, through the granting of lucrative contracts.

We know that the way individuals were treated resulted in immense stress, despair, ill health, and that drove some to suicide. The trauma caused extended to families and impacted on communities.

In the preface to her report, Catherine Holmes noted that the incidence of fraud was ‘miniscule.’  This didn’t prevent ministers and other politicians from blowing this out of proportion, to justify what was happening.

Now that Robodebt has become scandal, there is no shortage of politicians tut tutting about how terrible it was. They omit that part about the broad bipartisan support for it. There is a smell of insincerity here. The exception is former prime minister Scott Morrison, who continues to deny any wrong.

Cartoon by Megan Herbert

Robodebt was exposed through the effort of many of its victims, their supporters, and of course, the critical role played by whistleblowers within the system. If the politicians had not gone missing at the time, there wouldn’t have been Robodebt.

The first recommendation in the report involves treating Centrelink recipients with respect and dignity, putting an end to the use of stigmatising language, and creating a process that is user friendly and efficient.

Instead of this, the post Robodebt system has delivered an even less user friendly service, with the extension reporting through an unintelligible online system. It is almost impossible to talk to a human being. Long waiting times on the phone have become even longer. Complaints continue to be ignored and wrong aren’t righted.

Conditions are set to generate more Robodebt style mistreatment, and there is no sign that the parliament is going to change this.

The report then goes on to discuss those who are vulnerable, and suggests better engagement with advocates, legal services, and those working within the system. There is no sign of any change here either.

Use of private debt collectors is mentioned. There is no recommendation that they shouldn’t be used anymore. Just that they shouldn’t be so zealous. Even this seems to be too much of a change to expect. Contracting out continues.

Another part of the report deals with a need to overhaul of the welfare system and transform it, from being a system for punishment to a system to better meet the needs of those who are covered by it. No change pending here either.

The welfare system has become even more remote. Staff continues to be shed and workloads have become even more unimageable.

There is a recommendation for greater transparency. No change here.

The report did deal with what should happen to the money wrongly taken from the victims. It doesn’t support returning it, on the grounds that the money can best be put to the overhaul of the system. We know the money won’t be used for this purpose. Nor will it be returned to the victims.

The bottom line is that any worthwhile change rests on a rejection of the neoliberal agenda, and a restructuring of the welfare system, to put the needs of those it is supposed to serve in the first place. It should be about genuinely assisting to find a job, or when this does not happen, to guarantee dignity and at a standard of living that is in line with community expectations.

It would help if those who made the decisions in the pollical system were to be held accountable and charged and punished if found by a court to have committed a crime. At least there would be some sense of justice being delivered. Don’t expect too much though.

It is the victims of the system and their supporters who will ultimately make all the difference. If the Holmes Royal Commission serves this end, it will made its best contribution.

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