Under questioning during a parliamentary hearing last Friday, Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell said she "didn't accept" that anyone had died as a result of the unlawful program - and in the context of some of the questioning, she didn't even know what the term "robodebt" was referring to.
Campbell's comments defy belief. Over 430,000 Australians had the horrific experience of getting screwed over by robodebt. More than 2000 people died from July 2016 to October 2018 after receiving Centrelink robodebt letters, about a fifth of whom were under 35 and nearly a third of whom were classified as "vulnerable", according to the Department of Human Services. Grieving families have spoken openly about how a loved one killed themselves after receiving a robodebt demand letter.
Campbell was secretary of the Department of Human Services (now Services Australia) from 2011 to 2017. DHS will now be repaying $721 million of those robodebts. She has been questioned about robodebt in multiple hearings before Senate estimates. A quick Google of her name returns thousands of results mentioning robodebt.
In 2018, in a speech to Institute of Public Administration Australia members, she knew precisely what robodebt was: "So, it's fair to say, when DHS rolled out the online compliance initiative which went on to be known as 'robodebt', we didn't do quite as much co-design as we should have." Those daily news clippings, departmental reports and media analysis about robodebt didn't just fall off her desk.
It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which Campbell didn't know exactly what the term robodebt refers to, unless she is completely ignorant of the biggest scandal facing her department during her tenure.
Watching public officials feign ignorance like this undermines public trust. In the middle of a pandemic, this kind of bureaucratic shedding of responsibility seeds fertile ground for a distrustful public to ignore authorities and turn to fake news. And what's utterly infuriating is that Campbell has faced no consequences - except for public censure in the form of social media backlash.
Why would you believe public bureaucrats on any topic ever again after listening to Campbell? Robodebt wasn't just some obscure policy issue. It killed people. Maybe in the first day or two of the public scandal around the program, back in 2016, you could have believed that perhaps she hadn't been properly briefed. But after four years of a hard-fought grassroots campaign against the scheme - and more than eight months after the matter was decided by the Federal Court - it is incomprehensible that Campbell doesn't know exactly what the term "robodebt" means - to so many people.
Still, the public expects that a departmental head can't just waltz into a parliamentary hearing, pretend they don't know what they're talking about and keep their job. But Campbell did. Not only that, but since the robodebt program was declared unlawful, Campbell's been shuffled out of Services Australia, received a new posting to DSS and been made an officer of the Order of Australia. It can only be assumed that her performance curried ministerial favour.
The memory-holing of the facts furnishes a disconnect with reality in governance and the public record. Public service pantomime such as Campbell's ignores outcomes, feigns ignorance, denies responsibility, and allows senior departmental managers and their political allies to emerge unscathed from their role in catastrophic public harm.
This kind of testimony before Parliament is a blight upon the Australian Public Service and ensures our democratic process remains nothing but bullshit theatre.
- Asher Wolf is a freelance journalist, digital rights activist and one of the key original organisers with the grassroots campaign against robodebt.