Royal commission reveals only some of the truth about Robodebt

Photo by Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Contributed by Adam Carlton

The Robodebt royal commission is bringing out into the open some brutal facts. The information coming before it supports the allegations that the scheme was illegal, involved intervention form the highest political level, and used manipulation of contradictions between the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to get around senior bureaucracy.

Robodebt is much more than a monumental stuff up. It was deliberately designed to as a weapon to demonise and punish those who found themselves out of work and went to Centrelink for help. This was calculated economic and social policy that was a consequence of neoliberalism, broadly shared by the Coalition and Labor. The royal commission is not briefed to deal with this side, which means it gets ignored.

Even with this obvious limitation, the revelations are huge.

From its inception, legal advice to the government questioned the legality of Robodebt. The government knew its scheme was likely unlawful and still chose to press ahead. Doing so revealed not only a preparedness to flout the law. It showed how important treating the unemployed with a big stick had become to it.

The illegality was the failure to introduce required legislation. One would suspect that this was to avoid public scrutiny.

Knowingly acting in a way that is likely to be illegal should bring consequences to the guilty. It is yet to be seen whether the commission’s report will recommend prosecutions.

More damning is the fact that false debts were imposed on individuals. This was proved by a successful class action that forced the government to pay millions of dollars in compensation.

Evidence presented before the royal commission revealed that Scott Morrison, the treasurer at the start of Robodebt, intervened directly, to ensure that it was applied in May 2015. This is at the time when Morrison was flagging in the media about the need for a “strong welfare cop on the beat.”

It was the welfare This is an obsession hat begins and ends with the accusation that to be unemployed means to be doing something wrong and deserving to be punished. The more pragmatic rationale is that vilification helps to create a cheap labour force, to be used as a weapon to pull down the wages of those who are employed.

Robodebt was an integral part of a package to discourage registration with Centrelink and force people into sub-standard jobs. This is what Scott Morrison and those around him were driving.

Robodebt was no accident. If we don’t understand this and take measures to ensure it does not happen again, it will eventually reappear in as new guise.

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