Home » Robodebt ‘Black Chapter’ Sparks Public Debate About What Needs to Change in the APS
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Robodebt ‘Black Chapter’ Sparks Public Debate About What Needs to Change in the APS

More than a fortnight since the royal commission’s 57 recommendations about the robodebt scandal were handed to government, the public and ministers responsible for the APS portfolio have started discussing what a better future can look like.

On Monday, assistant minister for the public service Patrick Gorman addressed the first senior official to fall on her sword: Kathryn Campbell.

When asked by an audience member of the ABC’s Q&A whether he could enjoy a glittering $900,000 annual salary like the former mandarin, Gorman said the process of appointments to a senior APS position was not political.

“You’ll be pleased to know that I, as an assistant minister, cannot appoint you as a deputy secretary of a department. That’s one of the things that actually we’re putting legislation through the parliament right now – to make it really clear that the public service is that ongoing institution,” Gorman said.

“[We want the APS] to be that thing that is there whether [Nationals MP] Barnaby Joyce is the deputy prime minister or a government where [Labor leader] Anthony Albanese is prime minister – whoever is there that it is that institution that sustains between governments.”

The assistant minister added that the citizen who posed the question might want to apply for a competitive graduate role in PM&C and go through a competitive selection process to join the APS. But independent MP Kate Chaney interjected to add another path to seniority in the APS might be to oversee a disaster like the illegal debt collection scheme overseen by Campbell, because she was shuffled into a senior adviser role for the trilateral Defence pact known as AUKUS once the new Labor government was voted into power in 2022.

Under the Coalition government, Campbell was serving as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Her resignation from the public service was accepted last Friday.

“Then you get moved from one disaster in AUKUS – where I don’t really think we can afford to be having a lot of disasters – and get paid nearly a million dollars,” Chaney said to applause from the audience.

“The robodebt scandal, this is going to take a long time for us to recover. We need to reform the public service but we also need to hold the people involved in that to account.

“We also need to hold this government to account to make sure that those changes are being made and that it can’t happen again,” she said.

The independent MP also made sharp criticisms about the fact Campbell’s senior AUKUS adviser role was announced and her pay was decided before a job description had been written, details of which were revealed after FOI requests.

“That is not an appropriate process,” Chaney said.

Gorman refused to be drawn on whether Campbell’s appointment to the AUKUS role by defence secretary Greg Moriarty was a mistake. Comments on individual public servants were not something he was prepared to make, he said, noting that Labor did not know just how bad the details of the robodebt train wreck were.

“The reason that we started that royal commission is that we wanted to get all of the information, allow everyone to put forward their case, and obviously there are some bits which all of us have seen in the public domain, there are some bits which even I haven’t seen in that sealed section – that’s where we’ve gotten to.

“As a government, we did know that there were problems in the public service before we had the robodebt royal commission. There’s a whole bunch of work that started before that even came out,” he said.

Joyce said people involved in robodebt  – public servants and politicians alike – needed to “take their medicine” and be subject to processes that meant nothing like the shameful program could be permitted from occurring again. But he also defended former prime minister Scott Morrison’s intent on remaining in his seat in parliament.

“Ultimately, I just know that if you start playing the ‘you should resign from parliament card’ […] then we’ll all be playing it.

“No, that’s not what it’s all about. People elect you,” he said.

When the panel moved onto the subject of whether a timeline should be made as to when the royal commission’s sealed section was released to the public, Gorman said he respected the process.

“I think everyone in this room and watching this program would like to see it – I think we should commit to the process and [consider acting] on the 57 recommendations that we’ve got.

“We can’t undo the past, and I wish we could because it was a scandal and it really hurt people in so many ways,” he said.

Chaney added that the work the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) had started this month was important but that she remained concerned integrity measures were too fixated on righting past wrongs rather than taking a preventative approach.

“I’m introducing a private members’ bill that is part of the work that we need to do on integrity, which is about restoring trust in our political system, and in our politicians and in our electoral processes so that we have better transparency,” Chaney said.

“We get the big money out of politics and we level the playing field so there’s competition in our political ideas just like there’s competition in business.

“This is the reform that I think we need to do to start rebuilding that trust so that people can actually believe that the people they elect are acting in the interests of the country – not in their own vested interests.”

On Tuesday, the NACC issued an update on the number of referrals, assessments and processes underway. It said that it had received 494 referrals, approximately 13% of which “relate to matters well publicised in the media” – the prevailing view is that this line refers to robodebt matters.

“It should also be noted that there are multiple referrals by different referrers of the same matters,” a statement from the watchdog read.

“We will soon be reaching out to individual referrers where we need additional information, or to let them know if we have decided not to proceed further.

Public service minister Katy Gallagher also shared some observations about the ways the royal commission had exposed a tarred APS.

She told a government services summit that commissioner Catherine Holmes’ findings demonstrated the APS reform agenda was critical, and that she was committed to executing that work with PM&C secretary Glyn Davis and APS commissioner Gordon de Brouwer.

“It’s a significant reminder to the APS about their accountability to the community. I think it’s a very black chapter in public administration,” Gallagher told an audience in Canberra.

“I think there’s always a range of reasons about why it got to that point, and obviously executive government can’t walk away from the responsibility they had and the role they played, but in terms of the integrity, and […] a forward-looking APS, there’s a lot of work to do in response.”

How the cabinet process allowed for glaring omissions from department heads about the ways in which the proposed robodebt scheme was legally sound also facilitated the bad scheme coming into existence, the minister said.

Senator Gallagher observed that good government processes around cabinet decision-making such as circulation of documents, timeframes, exposure drafts and the ability to comment should have provided safeguards to poor decision-making.

“As we work through the robodebt royal commission recommendations, all of that will be assessed and we’ll work our way through it,” she said of the interventions the Department of Finance or another APS agency could have made at the cabinet level.

“It may be that there are some further changes that need to be made,” she said.

For APS capability more broadly, the minister said robodebt was a cautionary tale about under-resourcing departments and what could happen when the oxygen was sucked out of opportunities for frank and fearless advice.

“I”m not referring to robodebt because that was a catastrophic failure of a whole range of systems, which the public service needs to be accountable for its share of the responsibility there, and it will be,” Gallagher said.

“But you have to resource and you have to give confidence to the APS that they are your chief advisers. I think some of that was challenged under the former government, I genuinely do.

“When we came in [last year], and I took on this role, I knew that the public service was under pressure. But it was much worse than I had thought and that was a combination of years and years of underinvestment and instruction about the way the public service should operate in my view.”

Defence secretary Moriarty also shared his own views on effective APS leadership, telling an IPAA ACT crowd of future leaders that trust was a pre-condition of delivering frank and fearless advice to ministers.

“We will follow proper processes but we will also be committed,” Moriarty said of following government mandates.

“What is really important for me is personal trust with my ministers, but also the trust that comes with performance that my department […] will do our best to implement the decisions of the government of the day.”

The secretary said robodebt had exposed fundamental issues about the character of some public servants and their compliance with the law. In this particular case, the integrity of the process had been “skewered”, impacting the path some public servants chose.

However, beyond robodebt, Moriarty said he had never belonged to a public service that was so independent of the Australian government that senior mandarins “ran the shop” and could influence decisions without a political mandate from the government of the day. If there was a legal, cabinet-endorsed decision, he said the public service must implement the government’s wishes.

“First of all, I don’t recall that,” Moriarty said. “If that ever existed, that era was gone by the time I joined the public service.

“But I also don’t like it. I don’t like the idea that somehow we are like in the US Constitution, set up as a separate [body]. We are here to serve the executive government of the day.

“We are responsible to other institutions: to the law, to the parliament, the senate – but the executive government has to be able to trust us to deliver on its agenda.”

Source : The Mandarin