Introduction by Croakey: Much evidence investigated by the Robodebt Royal Commission has been about the illegality of the former Coalition Government’s brutal scheme that pursued hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients for incorrect debts, with devastating impact over years.
But, as The Saturday Paper journalist Rick Morton wrote on Saturday, even if it were legal, Robodebt “would still have killed people. It would still have crushed people”.
Public health experts deliver their verdicts on the scheme below, saying that it was “the very opposite of healthy public policy”, one that punished and stigmatised people who are entitled to (already gravely inadequate) income support, and represented massive governance failure and structural violence.
“From a public health perspective it is hard to imagine a more damaging episode of public administration than the Robodebt scheme,” writes Professor Fran Baum, who says the revelations are also a call to action for the public health community be more outspoken when warnings are sounded.
The Robodebt Royal Commission held the last of its public hearings last Friday and is due to report its findings on 30 June.
It will do so, having delivered evidence of a scheme that was, as Administrative Law lecturer Darren O’Donovan wrote in The Conversation, not a technological glitch or a legal oversight but “the active and direct exploitation of people’s vulnerability”.
Morton and O’Donovan were among a small number of journalists and “citizen Twitter journalists” singled out for praise by Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes for their committed coverage of the inquiry as she closed the hearings on Friday.
Holmes said “traditional” media coverage of the Royal Commission had, with some honourable exceptions, been “patchy”, tending to flare when a Minister was on the stand.
As a result, she had come to appreciate the importance of social media, she said, observing that it had “performed a remarkably useful and important public service in giving people access to the evidence”. Watch her comments here.
“Very opposite of healthy public policy”
Fran Baum, Professor of Health Equity, The Stretton Institute, The University of Adelaide
The Robodebt debacle was the very opposite of healthy public policy – it was extraordinarily unhealthy public policy. Its implementation literally drove people to their death and caused an untold tsunami of mental illness among people living on inadequate welfare payments.
I wonder if compulsory health impact assessment of all public policies would have helped avoid this catastrophe of a public policy? But perhaps it wouldn’t as we have heard the ways in which public servant advice was ignored, dumbed down or not given by politicised public servants. The same is likely to have happened with any health impact assessment.
The Robodebt appears to have involved oursourcing the debt collection to the private sector. How accountable were these companies? Did they realise the duty of care they had? If they did, did they excise that care? Why were people identified as vulnerable because of their history of mental illness hounded by these companies?
On top of the direct effects of Robodebt on people’s health there was also the more insidious message that underpinned the whole sorry business: the message that those on the dole are bludgers and are trying to rip the system off! This from people who likely avoided tax when they could. This message about dole bludgers will affect all the people on welfare. The payment they receive is simply inadequate to live on and then on top of that they are stigmatised in ways that are health-managing.
From a public health perspective it is hard to imagine a more damaging episode of public administration. I wish I’d been more vocal about it because although we hadn’t had the full story there was enough concern from those affected about the scheme. The lesson is that our public health community has to be more outspoken about such failures of public administration and call it out as soon as the warning are heard.
I hope Catherine Holmes’s report is as sharply critical as her comments during the Commission’s hearings. I also hope her report lays the groundwork for prosecutions of those in public office who failed to exert any duty of care to all those Australians terrified by the false and illegal debt claims.
Governance failure on ‘steroids’
Professor Sharon Friel, Professor of Health Equity, Director, Menzies Centre for Health Governance, Australian National University
What have some of Australia’s most vulnerable populations done to deserve such brutal treatment that was Robodebt?
Robodebt makes a mockery of the duty that any democratically elected government has to ensure that its citizens physiological and safety needs are met. The massive governance failure that enabled this structural violence to continue for so many years has disempowered people who are often already disempowered. And disempowerment is incredibly bad for people’s health.
Being empowered to lead a life with dignity and in good health requires three key things: sufficient material resources, a sense of control over our lives, and a voice and participation in the decision-making processes that affect the conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work, and age.
Robodebt robbed people of each of these, which will exacerbate the existing inequities in our society of having the opportunity to live a long healthy life and will create a long tail of physical and mental health inequities into the future.
These three aspects of empowerment are influenced by public policy and the way in which society chooses to run its affairs. Economic and social policies generate and distribute power, income, goods and services. As Robodebt shows, who you are affects the type of exposure and access to quality caring services you have. Money brings purchasing power, prestige and choices.
The financial harm from Robodebt and the associated widening income inequities creates barriers of status between people and reduces trust, self-worth, sympathy and community within societies, which give rise to feelings of social exclusion, insecurity, stress and can lead to early death.
So why has the Australian Government chosen to ignore the needs of most of the population that it is supposed to serve, and why has the Government in fact chosen to make the situation worse?
This was a governance failure on steroids. What sort of political system, bureaucracy and society more broadly do we have that enabled this shameful practice to continue for so long?
Punitive and demonising
Dr Joanne Flavel, Research Fellow at Stretton Health Equity in the Stretton Institute, Adelaide University
Income support payments are meant to alleviate poverty, thereby preventing poor health. The Coronavirus Supplement in 2020 was an excellent example of income support protecting mental health during a period of financial stress for many people.
Robodebt was the antithesis of the purpose of income support, causing severe financial distress amongst some of the most vulnerable in our society and triggering extreme stress that had serious adverse impacts on mental health, tragically resulting in suicide for some.
Income is a powerful social determinant of health. Income support payments provide a safety net for people who would not otherwise have an income, or for whom their income would be far too insufficient to meet basic needs such as food, housing, utilities, and healthcare.
Social security payments in Australia should therefore be positive for health by reducing food insecurity, homelessness, and the adverse mental and physical health impacts of poverty and financial stress. In addition, effective income support programs with adequate payments reduce the cost of poverty and inequality to the health sector, as well as the community and education sectors.
Robodebt undermined the purpose of income support payments.
It was a punitive scheme that demonised income support recipients at a time when we should be raising the lowest income support payments which are well below the poverty line and no longer allowing people to meet basic needs. Research is clear that poor health reduces the likelihood of employment, and living in poverty has adverse impacts on mental and physical health.
Increasing the lowest income support payments would allow single parent families and jobseekers to live with dignity, provide funds for access to health and dental care, enable payment of rising utility bills, and funds for rising food and housing costs.
It would also provide enough income for jobseekers to take up employment, training, and educational opportunities. Trying to make budget cuts via social security is counter-productive and undermines this important safety net.
See Croakey’s previous coverage of social policy issues.