The new Albanese government has confirmed it will make good on its election promise to appoint a royal commission into the Morrison government's robodebt scheme.
But no matter how honourable the government's intentions are, appointing a royal commission into your predecessor's administration is fraught with political danger and questionable public benefits.
The robodebt scheme was an initiative beginning in 2016 that aimed to recover overpaid social security benefits, as identified by an automatic algorithmic calculation process. Consequently, thousands of social security recipients were asked to repay alleged overpayments. Data matching of this type is increasingly used, because it is more efficient and cost-effective than previous manual methods. But while retrieving overpayments is the duty of any responsible government, this new process was flawed, with many recipients being wrongly asked to refund monies.
Consequently, reports by the Commonwealth Ombudsman identifying numerous mistakes, two parliamentary inquiries, a Federal Court decision that the program was illegal and a class action forced the Morrison government to repay more than $1 billion to a total of some 400,000 social security recipients.
The issue here is whether robodebt was a policy fiasco caused by poor implementation and incompetence, or more an example of policy malfeasance, whereby the previous government deliberately bypassed legislation, used technology of questionable accuracy, and ignored public service advice in order to pursue an ideological agenda. Labor believes it was the latter, and so only a royal commission, with its coercive powers of investigation, can "expose the truth of the Morrison government's illegal 'robodebt' scheme" and "return integrity to the public service", so such a "disaster ... never happens again".
But is a royal commission really needed, given the previous reviews, the repayments to those affected, the legal action taken, and the administrative practices changed? Or will it be nothing more than political revenge?
Such has been the case previously.
Labor was right to decry the Abbott government's appointment of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption as nothing more than exercises in political revenge. That they produced so little that was new or led to major prosecutions confirmed Labor's suspicions. The Howard government's second royal commission into the Centenary House Lease, given its links to the Labor Party, was not much better.
The danger is that not only will such politically motivated inquiries be seen as such, and thus devalue the royal commission instrument that has served us well in investigating scandals and maladministration, but as history shows, such commissions often roam into unexpected areas and damage the appointing government.
The Fraser government's Costigan royal commission into the painters and dockers union, partly established in the hope of causing collateral damage to the Labor Party, in the end caused considerable damage to the government and the Liberal Party, by exposing bottom-of-the-harbour tax avoidance schemes and mismanagement of the Australian Tax Office.
While Labor's draft terms of reference for its robodebt royal commission - establishing who was responsible, the advice provided, the processes followed and the overall costs - are legitimate, this inquiry too might produce some undesirable consequences.
For instance, senior public servants and the quality of advice they offered would have to be identified. Individual officers and the public service might be brought into disrepute. It could be construed as - or become - an attack on the public service and senior officials, undermining the service's integrity. This would not be an auspicious start for a new Labor government needing to build rapport and trust with the public service.
Other areas - like ministerial offices, whose numbers, powers and accountability are already under a cloud - might also be exposed by a royal commission, leading to their roles being severely circumscribed and regulated, thus frustrating a new administration.
Further, the draft terms of reference suggest the need "to investigate the harm to law-abiding Australians". Does this mean further compensation is envisaged? That needs to be clarified.
Lastly, royal commissions necessarily take six to 12 months to report, by which time the new government will have other problems to address - and so robodebt will, regardless of its importance, be seen as yesterday's issue.
So, while a royal commission into this dismal policy debacle has merit, Labor needs to be careful of potential adverse consequences for the public service, themselves and, perhaps most importantly, the prestige of the royal commission instrument in a society which is already losing trust in its institutions.
As with all royal commissions, be careful what you wish for.
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