In his appearance at the Robodebt Royal Commission yesterday, Stuart Robert wants us to believe that not only was he the one that finally put a stop to the illegalities of income averaging, but that he knew it was wrong all along. However, the pesky Westminster system stopped him from speaking out.
A ventriloquist could not speak out of both sides of his mouth like former LNP Government Minister Stuart Robert. In his combative performance at the Robodebt hearings, Robert appeared to blame it all on the public service who kept advice from him for months. At one stage, he earned a rebuke from Commissioner Catherine Holmes when wanting to “put something” to the unflappable Counsel Assisting, Angus Scott, making it clear to Mr. Robert who was asking the questions.
Conveniently ignoring that back in 2016, when the Robodebt scheme was hatched, Robert was the Minister for Human Services (DHS), he wanted the hearing to believe that privately, he knew it was wrong; that income averaging using fortnightly snapshots of income from the ATO as a basis for finding welfare cheats couldn’t work. “It’s just simple maths,” he said, and he’d be right.
He refuted evidence from Renée Leon, former Secretary of DHS, that he had dismissed the advice of the Solicitor General as “just an opinion.” And when confronted with numerous transcripts of interviews and other public utterances he’d made in support of the scheme, he repeatedly answered that as a minister he was compelled to be loyal to Cabinet policy, regardless of his “personal opinion.” “It’s the way the Westminster system works,” he stated with the pomposity of a learned scholar on democracy.
The Westminster system of government that the Australian democracy is based on is a long way from ideal. One of its most ingrained faults is how Ministers are appointed mainly on political merit, not on the basis of experience relevant to a particular department’s remit. Stuart Robert is proof of that flaw.
But to use the Westminster system as an excuse for not speaking the truth is at best disingenuous. “Cabinet solidarity,” meaning that once Cabinet has agreed on a policy, then all members must be seen to be supportive of it, is indeed one of the many unwritten conventions of the Westminster system. But that does not give a public servant, including ministers, carte blanche to give misleading statements.
On numerous occasions, Robert was not only strident in his public support for the income averaging method, he was on record to confirm its legality. He, like the rest of the (too many) ministers involved throughout the life of the scheme, only changed his view when the damage caused by the scheme to thousands of welfare recipients was too obvious to ignore. Many years too late.
The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has another week of hearings left, and is not due to submit its report until 30 June, 2023. But it is already clear that it has shown up fundamental flaws in the accountability and competency of many of the public servants involved. It has also laid bare a culture where government ministers may make what appears to be unlawful decisions while looking the other way when confronted with expert and legal advice. All in the interest of political – and budgetary – expediency.
Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.