In 2016 the Australian government implemented a scheme where an algorithm instead of a human would identify and pursue outstanding welfare debts. The system, dubbed ‘robodebt’, led to 373,000 Australians being forced to pay outstanding debts. The scheme was later found to be unlawful and was scrapped in 2020 resulting in the government agreeing to a settlement of $1.8 billion covering repaying debts paid, erasing outstanding debts and legal costs - KJ
ADELAIDE - I have followed the activities of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme since it commenced.
As a retired former senior executive in the South Australia public service, I have some insight into the sometimes quite complex relationships between senior public servants and their political masters.
Over the years politicians of all persuasions have progressively subverted the traditional independence of the public service through a variety of means, most notably by placing all senior executives on performance-based, time-limited contracts.
The Robodebt scheme exemplifies just how damaging this process has been for the development and implementation of public policy.
It is clear that the senior public servants responsible for designing and implementing the scheme knew almost from the outset that it was illegal, as well as immoral and unethical.
Nevertheless, they worked assiduously to comply with the wishes of their political masters.
They ignored, denied or circumvented all advice that contradicted the ideologically-based belief that the people caught up in the scheme were all 'welfare cheats' and thus undeserving of sympathy or belief.
In short, these public servants entirely bought into the beliefs of the governing party as distinct from approaching the matter in a dispassionate, fair-minded and, above all, legal and ethical manner.
They truly became the servants of the ruling political party as distinct from the Australian public they are sworn to serve.
This catastrophic failure to perform their proper role in giving frank and fearless advice has been reflected in the evasions, deflections and convenient lapses in memory that senior public servants called before the Royal Commission have displayed when giving evidence.
Even more conveniently, one of the key figures involved, the deputy secretary of the Department of Social Services, has since died.
The Royal Commission thus will be deprived of critical insights into what passed between the responsible ministers involved and the principal architect of the scheme.
The Australian Public Service has been irredeemably corrupted by years of political efforts to reduce it to a mere cypher of the political party in power.
That it is no longer fit for purpose has been vividly displayed during the Royal Commission.
The same may be said of the state public services, wherein the same tactics have been pursued to make them more responsive to the political party in power.
The members of Australia's major political parties are both shrinking in number and increasingly not representative of the wider Australian community.
They are much more reflective of specific interest groups, particularly trade unions and big business.
Of less but still significant influence are religious groups and some ethnic communities.
Consequently, political ideas about policy and governance are driven more by the need to satisfy the economic or ideological needs of a relatively small number of interest groups and not the needs and aspirations of the wider public.
The processes of a public service that is the captive of politicians thus becomes an instrument of their will.
As the Robodebt scandal demonstrates clearly, this can results in actions that are neither consistent with law nor commitment to the public interest.
By rights, the Royal Commission ought to interpret its brief to recommend major changes to how the Australian Public Service is structured and managed.
In particular, it should recommend that the practice of hiring public servants on a contractual basis should be abandoned in favour of a return to some form of tenured appointment.
It is abundantly apparent that a senior public servant whose tenure depends upon the whim of the government of the day will feel constrained from giving 'frank and fearless' advice that runbs contrary to political will.
This was understood by those wise legislators who more than a century ago first established an public service accountable to but significantly independent of the political class.
This was primarily done to serve as a bulwark against the cronyism, nepotism and corruption that was pervasive at the time.
The Robodebt debacle demonstrates that the modern, contract-based public service has taken a backward step and once again become vulnerable to cronyism, nepotism and corruption.
If there ever was a time when major reform was needed, it is now.
Whether Australia's major political parties are capable of doing this, or even recognising the need to do it, is a moot point.
I will not be holding my breath.