Robodebt Officers off the Hook

In an extraordinary move, the National Anti Corruption Commission has declined to pursue the Robodebt Royal Commission’s findings, saying ‘it was unlikely to obtain significant new evidence’ and was concerned about ‘the seniority of the officials involved’.

The announcement was met with dismay from the survivors of the Robodebt scheme, their advocates, and the family members of those who took their lives as a consequence of being issued debts that they did not owe.

Let’s not forget that Robodebt was both a crime and a preventable disaster. The Royal Commission revealed it as one of the greatest public policy scandals and injustices in Australian political history.  A government knowingly deployed an illegal compliance scheme against the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens, and then fought to keep that scheme operational in the face of multiple legal challenges.  

In the statement the NACC advised that the “National Anti-Corruption Commission decides not to pursue Robodebt Royal Commission referrals but focus on ensuring lessons learnt.”

The decision to decline to open an investigation into the six officials because the Robodebt Royal Commission had apparently covered all bases is odd, considering Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes requested, and received, permission to delay tabling her final report until the NACC was established, specifically to then make criminal referrals to it.  

The NACC was the culmination of years of advocacy not just by accountability and transparency supporters, but in the end by the general public as well, particularly as the full scope of the injustice of the Robodebt scheme became clear.

For the Commission to announce that its first decision since being established is to do nothing, on a matter that is seen as not only grave but also as a quite clear cut instance of corrupt behaviour by public officials (as revealed by the Royal Commission), brings its entire function, its powers and the perception of its powers into question.

For those wondering if the actions of the architects of the Robodebt scheme can actually be considered “corrupt”, corruption itself is defined in the legislation that created the NACC, and is available on their website.  A person engages in corrupt conduct if:

  1. they are a public official and they breach public trust
  2. they are a public official and they abuse their office as a public official
  3. they are a public official or former public official and they misuse information they have gained in their capacity as a public official
  4. they do something that adversely affects a public official’s honest or impartial exercise of powers or performance of official duties. (Any person can engage in this type of corrupt conduct, even if they are not a public official themselves.)

The Robodebt Royal Commission’s final report outlines in forensic detail how the public officials that designed, implemented and protected the scheme in order to keep it running longer than it should have been allowed to could be found to have breached all four of these pillars.
Journalist Rick Morton covered the Robodebt scandal and its Royal Commission in detail for months.  He observed:

The irony, of course, is that the failure to even bother to do any of this in relation to six anonymous people referred by another legal expert in Catherine Holmes — only five of whom are subject to the process the NACC claims makes them redundant — is in itself a catastrophic breach of public trust. This is the first public ‘decision’ of the new authority. It screams abdication.

Rick Morton

The NACC as conceived by the Albanese government is not the independent fact finding and accountability champion that independent Helen Haines put forward in her private member’s bill for a federal ICAC, or that advocates such as the Centre for Public Integrity or the Australian Democrats had called for.  

The Albanese government’s insistence on bipartisan support for the NACC meant that transparency measures such as public hearings were jettisoned in order to ensure the Coalition parties in the Opposition would support the passage of the legislation to found the NACC.  In its first decision it has revealed itself incapable of completing the task it was created for, which is to hold the powerful to account and ensure that when corrupt or criminal behaviour by public or elected officials is uncovered, justice is not only done, but seen to be done.

Openness, accountability, truth and the public’s right to know are essential principles and protections in a democracy.  A body like the NACC is the last line of defence in ensuring that those that serve the nation are held to account for their actions.  It must be given the appropriate powers and scope to complete this function.  Additionally there must be earlier lines of defence in our institutional and public spheres to ensure that corrupt or criminal behaviour by public and elected officials does not happen in the first place – as outlined by our accountability policy platform.

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