Opinion piece by Melissa Donnelly, National Secretary Community and Public Sector Union

Last week I was in a busy Services Australia Service Centre in south-west Sydney talking to CPSU members. Nearly every seat in the waiting area was taken, staff were working non-stop helping customers.

After talking about APS bargaining, a frontline Centrelink worker raised with me the upcoming Robodebt Royal Commission report. With a resigned sigh, she said “if only they had asked any of us, if only they had listened, we all tried to tell them”.

And that’s the sentiment of so many Services Australia and APS workers.

The Robodebt scheme was a catastrophic failure of governance, that had devastating impacts across the country. The damage it did was far-reaching and much of it cannot be undone.

While nothing is worse than the pain and stress it inflicted on the individuals and families who received those unlawful debts, there is more.

Robodebt altered public perception of welfare recipients.

Robodebt eroded trust in public services.

Robodebt damaged the reputation of the APS.

Robodebt had very real, and still very raw, consequences on Centrelink workplaces and staff who were forced to implement it. The personal and professional impacts were profound, in many cases, leaving passionate, good-hearted, and experienced public servants broken.

For hundreds, if not thousands, of hardworking Services Australia employees, Robodebt was the final straw. They quit the agency. Or rather, the agency lost them.

The evidence before the Royal Commission has raised serious questions about the independence and leadership of some of the most senior leaders of APS Departments and Agencies. The final report from the Royal Commission due to be handed down at the end of the week must address this.

The most frequent question being asked in APS workplaces is – will anyone be held accountable?

So far, the answer has been no. But this report could and should change that.

Kathryn Campbell, key architect of the program and its most fervent advocate in the public service, has well and truly landed on her feet after walking into a well-paid senior gig as an AUKUS Advisor in Defence on $900,000 a year.

In stark contrast are the people who were unrelentingly and needlessly hounded for 5+ years getting at most, $400 a week. The staff in Services Australia that had to implement the scheme, most likely earn between $50,000 and $80,000 a year and haven’t had a decent pay rise in more than a decade.

Every day that goes by without accountability from those senior APS leaders that championed this scheme is an insult to those who suffered and continue to suffer because it.

Many Centrelink workers, welfare recipients, and even everyday Australians, would tell you that Kathryn Campbell’s ongoing employment within the Australian Public Service is both gobsmacking and untenable. They aren’t wrong.

If we are to restore public trust in the public service and its senior leadership, there has to be accountability.

Serious action must be taken to reestablish independence and confidence in the senior leadership and to restore the faith of the broader Australian community who rely on the efficient functioning of a frank and fearless public sector.

There is consensus that Robodebt, or any iteration of it, cannot be allowed to happen ever again. For that to be the case there needs to be broader change.

We need to rethink how we value frontline public services and those who work in it.

We need to ensure the voices of frontline workers are properly heard, and protected when they speak out.

When frontline workers raised concerns about Robodebt they were silenced, ignored or punished. Their bosses weaponised the APS Code of Conduct to silence them. Public sector workers shouldn’t be forced to decide between keeping their job or doing what is right. It is in the public interest for APS employees to be able to do both.

This is why there is an urgent need for genuine whistleblower protections that give APS workers protected avenues for receiving independent advice from their union and other appropriate bodies.

And if we actually value frontline public services, then we need to properly resource them.

Services Australia has been gutted over the past decade and the last budget saw staffing levels go backwards again. This is an unacceptable trend.

Across the country, Services Australia must be properly staffed with permanent APS employees. This will improve public services and outcomes for the community.

Under-resourcing, under-staffing and plugging holes with insecure work arrangements must be abandoned if this government is serious about its response to the Robodebt Royal Commission, about addressing safety concerns and about rebuilding the APS.

Finally, I had planned to use this space as an opportunity to publish the direct words of CPSU members regarding their experiences of Robodebt, and the impact it had on them, but the content was simply too distressing. Their requests aren’t though, so here they are in black and white:

CPSU members want the Royal Commission to bring accountability for all the lives that were harmed by the Robodebt scheme. They want their agency to be properly resourced so they can do the job they are there to do. They want to be safe at work – physically and psychologically. They want their experience and expertise to be valued, which means no more blanket automation and an end to the assumption that anyone can slot in and do their job. And they want an apology from their employer for what they endured.

I want to be able to go back and see that woman at the Service Centre in south-west Sydney and make sure that she has closure. And that all of our members in Services Australia and the APS have closure. But there can’t be closure without accountability, or without an apology.

The time for that is now.

This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Tuesday 4th July 2023.

Media contact: Tori McGregor 0429 000 620