Having had his prime ministerial dreams dashed nearly four years ago, Bill Shorten was left with several options. One was to leave politics in the last term of parliament, another was to undermine Anthony Albanese in the hope of regaining the Labor leadership. A third course of action discussed following Labor’s election victory last May was for the former Australian Workers Union national secretary to take up a diplomatic posting, perhaps in London.
Shorten instead went about establishing himself as one of the Albanese government’s most effective ministers. In the 10 months since the defeat of the Morrison government, Shorten has worked hard to tackle fraud and cost blowouts in the National Disability Insurance Scheme through his important but less-than-glamorous role as minister for the NDIS and minister for government services.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison appearing at the royal commission.
But perhaps his most important contribution to date has been his push for a royal commission into the disastrous and deadly robo-debt scheme designed and enforced by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.
Shorten helped set up the probe last year and has led the charge in highlighting the shameful actions of Coalition ministers who allowed the flawed scheme to operate unlawfully for years before it was finally scrapped in 2020. A class action the following year produced a settlement package worth $1.8 billion.
Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Dan Tehan, Marise Payne, Stuart Robert, Alan Tudge and Michael Keenan were all at various times ministers in charge of the departments that had a hand in the scheme. Many have been called to the royal commission and offered pathetic excuses for why problems with the scheme never came to their attention, or why they failed to act on the rare occasions when issues were raised.
Robert’s future in parliament should be in question given his admission at a hearing earlier this month that he made statements to the media in support of the scheme at a time when he knew its lawfulness was in doubt. Comically, Robert — who said he held “massive personal misgivings” about robo-debt — blamed cabinet solidarity for deceiving the public.
Commissioner Catherine Holmes has done an exceptional job of cutting through the spin and excuses offered by former ministers and prime ministers called before the hearings, while counsel assisting Justin Greggery, KC, has uncovered the full extent of the scandal through forensic and dogged questioning.
The royal commission, which wrapped up public hearings on Friday after taking evidence from politicians, bureaucrats and victims over nine weeks, has shone an important light on this dark chapter in Australian history.
Under its terms of reference, the royal commission’s primary task has been to uncover how the robo-debt calamity was allowed to occur, and make recommendations to ensure such an epic failure of public administration could not occur again.
But who will be held accountable for a scheme that ruined lives, drove innocent citizens, tragically, to suicide?
The commission’s final report due by June may name ministers and senior public servants whose actions contributed to these horrible outcomes, but shame alone is not enough. Not least because it feels like some senior figures in this affair are incapable of guilt or shame.
Former departmental secretary Kathryn Campbell.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
While the Westminster system means ultimate responsibility lies with executive government, The Age is also deeply concerned about the role several senior public servants — particularly the former secretary of the Department of Human Services and Department of Social Services, Kathryn Campbell — have played.
Campbell, who insisted in a Senate estimates hearing in 2020 that she did “not accept that people have died over robo-debt”, appeared hostile during her final appearance at the royal commission last week.
She accepted a cabinet submission prepared by her department, which claimed no legislative change was needed to implement the scheme, ended up misleading the expenditure review committee. She rejected any suggestion it was deliberate.
When repeatedly challenged about why she let the scheme operate even though the system was chasing debts from people who didn’t owe them, Campbell could only say she was of the view that the policy was lawful.
And when commissioner Holmes put it to Campbell that she may have projected to members of the department that she did not want to hear anything negative about the appropriateness of the scheme, the best Cambell could offer was one word: “No”.
After overseeing this debacle, Campbell was promoted by the Morrison government in 2021 to run the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Unsurprisingly, the Albanese government removed her from this position last June.
Where is she now? Ensconced within the Department of Defence in an “AUKUS-related role” on a package of up to $900,000 a year.
And most of the responsible ministers are still in parliament.
So much for accountability.
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