Will anyone be held accountable for the robo-debt disgrace?

The royal commission, which wrapped up public hearings on Friday after taking evidence from politicians, bureaucrats and victims over nine weeks, has shone an important light on this dark chapter in Australian history.

Under its terms of reference, the royal commission’s primary task has been to uncover how the robo-debt calamity was allowed to occur, and make recommendations to ensure such an epic failure of public administration could not occur again.

But who will be held accountable for a scheme that ruined lives, drove innocent citizens, tragically, to suicide?

The commission’s final report due by June may name ministers and senior public servants whose actions contributed to these horrible outcomes, but shame alone is not enough. Not least because it feels like some senior figures in this affair are incapable of guilt or shame.

Former departmental secretary Kathryn Campbell.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

While the Westminster system means ultimate responsibility lies with executive government, The Age is also deeply concerned about the role several senior public servants — particularly the former secretary of the Department of Human Services and Department of Social Services, Kathryn Campbell — have played.

Campbell, who insisted in a Senate estimates hearing in 2020 that she did “not accept that people have died over robo-debt”, appeared hostile during her final appearance at the royal commission last week.

She accepted a cabinet submission prepared by her department, which claimed no legislative change was needed to implement the scheme, ended up misleading the expenditure review committee. She rejected any suggestion it was deliberate.

When repeatedly challenged about why she let the scheme operate even though the system was chasing debts from people who didn’t owe them, Campbell could only say she was of the view that the policy was lawful.


And when commissioner Holmes put it to Campbell that she may have projected to members of the department that she did not want to hear anything negative about the appropriateness of the scheme, the best Cambell could offer was one word: “No”.

After overseeing this debacle, Campbell was promoted by the Morrison government in 2021 to run the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Unsurprisingly, the Albanese government removed her from this position last June.

Where is she now? Ensconced within the Department of Defence in an “AUKUS-related role” on a package of up to $900,000 a year.

And most of the responsible ministers are still in parliament.

So much for accountability.

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