Robodebt deeply shameful for Australian Public Service
Updated: May 4
As someone who was a proud public servant for over three decades, I found the Robodebt Royal Commission deeply saddening and shameful. It reaffirmed what Australia already knew - Robodebt was flawed, illegal and morally indefensible. But the Royal Commission also lifted the scab off a cancer in the culture Australian Public Service (APS) and its relations with Ministers.
From day one during my APS career, I knew my job was to provide frank and fearless advice. I always said what needed to be said. Even when it wasn’t what I thought politicians or my direct bosses wanted to hear. Even when it was uncomfortable or so-called potentially 'career-limiting’. I worked with many Secretaries who followed the same creed – Stephen Kennedy, Blair Comley, Frances Adamson and Gordon de Brouwer all come to mind. I admire and respect them all as role models.
Especially during the Gillard years, I remember being unafraid to tell Minister’s what they needed to hear. When briefing the PM and Ministers Greg Combet and Mark Dreyfus on climate change policy, I always felt safe. I was encouraged to challenge them and warn them of risks. They asked me questions and they listened to my advice. Greg Combet’s former chief of staff, Allan Behm, exemplified this in his book “No Minister”. He wrote about the need for courage in advising Ministers.
Ministers knew and appreciated that evidence-based advice kept them safe. Even in the early years of the Abbott Government. I remember an occasion with Minister Greg Hunt. One evening in his Parliament House office in front all his staff, I told him that he’d made a mistake on the ABC’s 730 Program. He walked into his office and a few minutes later came out and called us all in. He said, “Gregory just told me I made a mistake … I want you all to do that”. Of course, there were times when he listened to my advice and chose to do otherwise. But that was his responsibility and I had exercised mine.
The Robodebt Royal Commission revealed careerist senior public servants chose not to provide frank and fearless advice to their Ministers. They crossed the political line. They told the Government what they thought it wanted to hear. They blocked contrary evidence. They gaslighted and punished subordinates and members of the public who tried to raise alarm bells. In the words of Dr Darren O’Donovan from La Trobe University, the “courage, strength and leadership … was not in the people who held fancy titles, … , it came flowing out of victims”. This is deeply shameful for the APS.
Australia has so many hard-working and honest public servants. I’m proud to have worked alongside many of them. They know who they are. But in the words of Laura Tingle, we need to have a “serious talk about the culture of public service”. We can’t rely on royal commissions to reveal problems retrospectively. We need something more systematic, transparent and accountable. We need a return to a culture where its safe to provide frank and fearless advice.
On the last day of the Royal Commission a Robotdebt victim called for change. I expect Commissioner Holmes' recommendations will be an excellent starting point.