Let’s be very clear about what occurred in the Robo-Debt saga here in Australia. This was an act of an institutionally corrupt agency within the Australian government.
Robo-Debt was a government scheme determined to claw back millions in overpaid benefits to ordinary Australians through an automated process. This scheme required the department responsible for issuing the benefits, to use an automated system to determine whether people were being overpaid their benefits based on their salaries. The department was using data provided by the Australian Tax Office to average out the wages of people who were receiving benefits from our social security network. The idea was that there would be less fraud and greater fidelity in the control of benefits.

What actually happened was that thousands of people were hit with massive debts which they were required to pay back. And some of these debts didn’t actually exist.
People committed suicide over these debts.

And the government agency involved, as well as one minister responsible for the portfolio, knew that the scheme was illegal.

Let me say that in a different way: Australian Public Servants who are bound by law to be honest and act with integrity, knew a scheme they were running was illegal, and did nothing about it. In fact, these Australian Public Servants hid or ignored the fact that it was an illegal scheme. And in some respects, this was ably assisted by portfolio ministers and their ministerial staff.

Now we have a royal commission laying this all out for us but what struck me and got my attention was the news reports that showed two damning things:
1. The department misled the Commonwealth Ombudsman
2. The department ignored the directions from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal

A senior public servant stated he intentionally misled the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the legality of the scheme, even though he knew it was illegal and had draft written advice that it was illegal. Another stated they followed the direction of a government lawyer to continue the flawed method of collecting debt even though the Administrative Appeals Tribunal order them to stop.

The Australian government’s two top administrative oversight mechanisms with considerable power were either misled or ignored by Australian public servants. Why? Possibly because they thought they could get away with it and be long gone before it came apart.

However, there is a more likely explanation for this situation, and it boils down to one thing: Institutional Corruption.

Institutional Corruption is not about bribes or secret payments, but about how an agency can come under a strategic influence that is legal or even ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.

A big mouthful of definition but the reality is that it means something turned the responsible department into a rogue state, using an illegal scheme to attack the most vulnerable in society.

That something was a strategic influence was the current Australian Public Service role in ‘protecting the minister’. The constant and clear issue that arises is that the government wanted success, the minister responsible wanted it to work, and the department had to deliver. This approach led to the department following the path of least resistance to the emerging issues, to ensure that the minister achieved his objectives.

This strategic influence was legal and according to the role of the Australian Public Service ethical, but let’s be clear – it led to illegal acts. A culture of cover up to protect ministers and the department was in place, and a cover up which ultimately cost lives.

Now let’s see if that strategic influence diverted the responsible department from it stated purpose, or at least weakening it in achieving its purpose.

The responsible department, the Department of Social Security has the following mission:
Our mission is to improve the wellbeing of individuals and families in Australian communities.

Robo-debt was a cost cutting scheme one could argue was designed to recover money that could be used for other services. However, this is a flawed argument when you note the same government failed to recover billions in dollars paid to businesses during the pandemic that the businesses did not require. None of this improved the wellbeing of individuals and families – that is very clear. Quite the opposite – it destroyed individuals and families. Robo-Debt in fact did not improve the wellbeing of individuals or families in the Australian community. Robot-debt destroyed individuals and families. A class action led to millions being paid out to individuals and the fallout from the Royal Commission will not be pretty.

So, to the final element of the definition of institutional corruption: weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.
The current information coming from the Royal Commission is clear in that not only has the public lost faith in the responsible departments, but the employees involved have also lost faith in the trustworthiness of the relevant departments. One should note that as in 2022 Centrelink was the least trusted agency in government. This was before the findings of the Royal Commission were being broadcasted to the extent they are now. Things will get interesting when the 2023 survey is released, noting that Centrelink is up on a previous low of 57% in 2021.
What is interesting is that the lead department, the Department of Social Security is not included in this survey. The key question will be whether they are a trusted agent for the government, by this current government.

In the next post we will cover how and why public servants, bound by law ignored the information in front of them and deliberately acted to bring this disaster about.

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