Kathryn Campbell – from RoboDebt ignominy to plum Defence job with the PM’s help

by Rex Patrick | May 13, 2023 | Government, Latest Posts

Kathryn Campbell is well known in the parklands and on the footpaths where some of Australia’s most disadvantaged live. Witnesses at the RoboDebt Royal Commission made her the face of the governance scandal. But in stark contrast to those affected by RoboDebt, she now sits in a plum job inside the Department of Defence on her old $900K salary. Former senator Rex Patrick examines the ins and outs.

Kathryn Campbell AO CSC was not liked by Labor senators. The Senate inquired into Centrelink’s Compliance Program (“RoboDebt”) from September 2019 to May 2022, and whilst senators didn’t penetrate Minister Stuart Robert’s improper public interest immunity shield preventing fulsome evidence being available to the Committee, they had a pretty good idea about what had gone on.

Senator Wong had been the leader of the opposition in the Senate, and there wasn’t much that got past her. She had a good idea on what went on inside Human Service (later Services Australia) and Social Services while Campbell reigned as Secretary. And she had first-hand knowledge of her more recent role as the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from grilling her at Senate Estimates.

As Prime Minister Albanese’s new Foreign Minister, she had her preference for the head of DFAT, and it wasn’t Campbell.

Campbell sitting pretty

So I was unsurprised when, on 22 June 2022, Albanese announced that Campbell was to be replaced as the DFAT Secretary by Jan Adams AO PSM.

However, what did surprise me was a remark at the end of the PM’s statement that Campbell was to be parachuted into a new role.

The face of RoboDebt now fills a Senior Executive Service Band 3 role inside Defence’s AUKUS submarine program. She retains her previous DFAT secretary’s remuneration package of almost $900K. She’s contracted for three years. The job comes with an overseas posting down track, meaning at some point Campbell will also be living in either Washington DC or London at taxpayer’s expense.

How did this all come about?

Albanese’s job creation scheme

Campbell did not go to a job that was sitting around needing filling. FOI documents show that the job creation paperwork was initiated the exact same day, 22 June 2022, that Albanese announced that Campbell no longer had a job at DFAT.

In a highly unusual act, the Senior Executive Service position wasn’t advertised.

FOI documents also show that she was the one and only person to be notified of and considered for the job.

By 24 June, two days after Albanese’s statement, the job creation paperwork was completed.

On 27 June the Secretary of Defence, Greg Moriaty, signed off on a remuneration agreement proposal that put her on well above the nominal $488,599 rate for a deputy secretary; with a recommendation that she be given her old DFAT secretary’s remuneration, $889,853, according to the 2021/22 DFAT annual report.

Moriaty also penned a letter seeking approval for the lavish salary from Australian Public Service Commissioner, Peter Woolcott. It was sent to Woolcott on the morning of 28 June.

On 30 June Commissioner Woolcott, the very person charged with strengthening the professionalism of the Australian Public Service and upholding high standards of integrity so that things like RoboDebt couldn’t happen, signed the approval. He sent it back to Secretary Moriaty who then immediately offered Ms Campbell the job.

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It was 8 days from job creation to job placement.

Ms Campbell remained on leave until Monday 5 September, when she attended her first day at the new office. Her car space, mobile phone, computer needs and Defence access pass had all been sorted out by the VIP employment teams within Defence before she arrived for her 8am meeting with her new boss, Vice Admiral Jonathon Mead.

An unexplained move

What was Albanese thinking?

Why did he contravene the normal process to put Campbell in a $900K per annum job?

Campbell has not come out of the RoboDebt Commissioner looking good. But, of course, at her time of redeployment to Defence, the Royal Commission into RoboDebt hadn’t even commenced.

But the Government knew the Robodebt program was a governance scandal. They knew it was illegal (a finding of the Federal Court) and had caused people to suicide. The Government had gone to the election promising a Royal Commission into the scheme.

Ms Campbell was the Secretary of Human Services in 2015 when RoboDebt started and shifted across to the Secretary of Social Security in 2017 when the scheme was starting to reach full flight. And yet Albanese created a job out of thin air for her.

It beggars belief.

Robodebt and transparency failures: is the rule of law optional for the PM’s office?

Reward and punishment culture

Campbell’s new responsibilities have been revealed through the FOI process. They don’t reconcile well with evidence, and even her own testimony, heard by the Royal Commissioner.

Ms Campbell is to ‘be the accountable officer for the management of the AUKUS Joint program officer … ‘.

At this point in time Ms Campbell has not demonstrated any sense of accountability for the things that took place under her command while she was the secretary of Human Service and Social Security. Even if people were to pay no regard to the evidence before the Royal Commission, Ms Campbell was the captain of the ship and the ship had run aground, with lives sadly and unnecessarily lost..

Her new role involves ‘providing policy’ and ‘strategic planning advice’ in circumstances where in previous roles she helped develop an unlawful and dangerous program.

Campbell conceded in her Royal Commission testimony on 11 November 2022 that she lacked “a necessary curiosity” in the development of the RoboDebt policy. Her response to Counsel Assisting on that day was instructive:

Mr Greggery: “Well, would you describe the RoboDebt Scheme implemented under your Secretaryship as a massive failure of public administration?”
Ms Campbell: “I consider it a failure of public administration.”
Mr Greggery: “On a massive scale?”
Ms Campbell: “On a massive scale – on a significant scale.”
Mr Greggery: “Can you think of a larger-scale failure?”
Ms Campbell: “In recent times, I think it is a significant matter. I have been involved with other significant failures. I have been aware of other significant failures. And there have been 40 other significant failures, but I don’t think it is useful to talk about those.”

It doesn’t reconcile with the task of policy and strategic planning advice for the most significant public expenditure program in the history of Australia.

Campbell has also been tasked with ‘giving quality advice to Ministers’ in circumstances where she conceded to the Royal Commission on 7 March this year that her “significant oversight” led to the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet being misled.

She’s been tasked to give advice to ‘The Secretary, the Chief of the Defence Force and officials’ in circumstances where the Department of Human Services that she led misled the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

Last but not least, Campbell has been asked to ‘build an organisational culture in her AUKUS team where leadership, professionalism, collaboration and corporate behaviour in support of One Defence are valued and rewarded’.

Ms Renee Leon PSM, Campbell’s replacement at Human Services testified to the Royal Commission on “the deep cultural problems at senior levels at the department when she took over from Campbell” and how staff were very fearful of Campbell and “the reward and punishment culture” that prevailed. Leon testified that there were wider cultural problems within the Department, including aggression and public shaming promoted by Campbell.

Time to act

Albanese’s appointment of Campbell through a dodgy expedited process made no sense back in June 2022. Today, her retention in light of the evidence laid out for all to see in the Royal Commission worsens the situation.

PWC did not need to hear formal recommendations from any Tribunal or court to work out their Chief Executive Officer, Tom Seymour, had to go for failure to act on a governance and integrity issue. Mr Albanese doesn’t need to wait for the Royal Commission to report to make a decision on Campbell.

Many who suffered RoboDebt are getting $350 per week while Campbell is receiving $17,100 per week. Every day she sits in Defence is a day of insult to those who suffered from the RoboDebt scheme. Rightly, there is anger in the community. Albanese must act.

Robodebt Cancer – has our public service become the secret service?

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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