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Government needs a push to act on Robodebt: Deakin law academic

The Federal Government will need to be pushed to implement in full the recommendations of the Robodebt Royal Commission, says Deakin academic Associate Professor Maria O’Sullivan.

Ms O’Sullivan’s comments follow a gathering of legal academics, public officials and political scientists hosted by Deakin University and Monash University in August.

While public and media commentary around Robodebt has centred on the use of automation in government decision-making, the workshop focussed on the underlying issues emerging from the Royal Commission. These include the provision of ‘frank and fearless advice’ by the public service, the politicisation of the public service, and the role of key review and oversight mechanisms such as the Ombudsman and Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The event operated under the Chatham House Rule where experienced former politicians, department heads and academic experts were given the opportunity to express their views freely.

‘The feeling from the workshop is that the government really needs to be pushed to implement these recommendations,’ Ms O’Sullivan said.

‘To summarise my feelings about the [government] response, the government is not going to be sufficiently hard on this.’

Ms O’Sullivan said the politicisation of the public service had been occurring for a long time, but the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme had ‘lifted the veil’ on the severity of the issue.

‘One example would be – the current government still wants to hold the power to get rid of [department] secretaries,’ she said.

‘When a government comes into power … they get rid of secretaries, so heads of departments. That’s up to governments to do that, but it can then politicise the public service because it can mean the government puts in place ‘yes’ people.’

‘That’s where there’s a tension – the public service is supposed to give frank and fearless advice, but it’s also supposed to implement government policy.’

‘Should there be a system where secretaries have tenure [instead]? That would decrease the chances of the politicisation of the public service.’

Ms O’Sullivan said another area in need of critical attention is the use of consultancy firms and media advisers who operate outside of the public service Code of Conduct.

She said the public vilification of people with Robodebt notices ‘had a chilling effect on other people coming forward’, and the use of media advisers working within private ministerial offices to leak sensitive personal information to the media had been ‘shocking’.

‘There’s some really hard work to be done to dismantle some of the power structures that have developed with power given to consultancy firms and media advisers, and it’s also clear that more government services need to be resourced,’ she said.

‘That’s also about how do we encompass these people in the definition of the public service and how do we regulate these people who are as powerful or increasingly more powerful than public servants?’

Ms O’Sullivan said the workshop was convened six weeks after the recommendations of the royal commission had been handed down, allowing experts time to digest the information before coming together.

‘The event went extremely well,’ she said. ‘There was an atmosphere of respect, open dialogue, truthfulness, robust debate.’

The findings from the workshop will be collated and sent to the government later this year.

Maria O’Sullivan is an Associate Professor in the Deakin Law School. She teaches in administrative law, public law and international refugee law.


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