Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has ensured Australian taxpayers will foot the bill for any criminal charges or civil proceedings brought against his colleague Scott Morrison over the former prime minister’s responsibility for ensuring his government’s Robodebt extortion scheme continued to steal money from some of the nation’s most vulnerable and disempowered under threat of legal action, despite senior politicians and bureaucrats knowing it was illegal, as the Final Report of the Royal Commission Into the Robodebt Scheme of 7 July 2023 found.
Mr Dreyfus approved the funding even before the Royal Commission’s scathing final report, which recommended that criminal charges be brought and civil penalties levied against a number of senior politicians and bureaucrats over their role in the criminal enterprise, one of whom is believed to be Mr Morrison, although this is yet to be confirmed.
The situation is a slap in the face for not only those affected by the scheme, some of whom died by suicide, but to the tens of thousands of struggling Australians who every year are refused publicly funded legal assistance such as legal aid, and are thereby left to either fund their legal costs privately or self-represent in court.
Debts already incurred
Former coalition ministers including previous prime ministers Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull have already racked up more than $2 million in taxpayer-funded legal expenses to protect their own personal interests at the Royal Commission hearings, and given the damning findings of the final report, which have called for senior politicians and bureaucrats to be prosecuted criminally and face civil penalties over their misconduct.
According to recently released figures from the Attorney General’s Department, Scott Morrison spent nearly half a million taxpayer dollars for legal bills, Christian Porter spent almost $800,000 and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spent nearly $100,000.
There are a string of others included in the tally, such as Michael Keenan and Marise Payne who spent short stints in the position of minister for human services.
This figure does not take into account Government money already spent on the landmark case in 2019 brought by Deanna Amato when the Federal Court determined her debt was ‘not validly made’. Nor does it include the legal expenses involved in the Government’s settlement of a class action over Robodebt for $1.2 billion in 2020.
Nor does it take into account the $30 million spent on conducting the Royal Commission itself.
Late last year, the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, approved payment of legal expenses for the former ministers who held portfolios which were at the centre of the Robodebt Royal Commission inquiry. Ministers and former ministers are eligible for “legal representation in relation to proceedings and other costs related to proceedings”.
Make no mistake, this is a significant perk – not many employees in corporate Australia would be afforded the same financial assistance, although it would be largely dependent on the nature of the legal action.
Taxpayers foot the bill
That said, many believe that with the Royal Commission now wrapped up, those who face criminal prosecution and/or civil proceedings over their alleged misconduct should be responsible for their own legal fees.
But this won’t be the case for Scott Morrison – as Australian taxpayers will foot the bill for any legal fees he may incur.
Names not released
The Holmes’ Report included a sealed section with names recommended for further investigation to the Australian Public Service Commissioner, the National Anti-Corruption Commissioner, the President of the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory and the Australian Federal Police, and those names have not been released.
However, the publicly published report did suggest criminal charges could be laid and Catherine Holmes also opened the gateway for civil action, too. Civil prosecution could be launched by anyone seeking justice and compensation over Robodebt.
Where does the buck stop?
Are hard-working Australians expected to foot the bill for legal action which could continue over the next several years, to defend Ministers who designed and implemented and continued to operate – even when they knew there were concerns about its legality – a debt recovery scheme that affected more than half a million Australians, causing distress, financial duress and even suicide?
Not only does this seem to be an incredible waste of limited resources meant for indigent people, particularly when over the past several years legal aid has turned away hundreds of clients because there are simply not enough funds to serve them.
But there’s also an argument to suggest that those who perpetuated a culture which demonised unemployed, mentally ill and other vulnerable Australians, and were remunerated very well while doing so, do not deserve to have their defence against such deplorable, discriminative and indeed illegal behaviour funded by taxpayers.
In any case, wouldn’t applying and accepting such aid be the kind of “rorting” the system they consistently told us that Robodebt was intended to crack down upon?
As the Holmes’ report noted: “on the evidence before the commission, elements of the tort of misfeasance in public office appear to exist”.
Further, the Commission heard a stack of evidence which showed a distinct lack of regard for the law.
Even during hearings most ministers could not actually bring themselves to say the scheme was “unlawful”, (rather, they referred to the scheme as ‘legally insufficient”) despite it officially being declared to be so by a Federal Court in 2019.
To be clear – this isn’t about mincing words – it is about accountability.
What about accountability?
Robodebt’s history has been well documented over the years, but the final Royal Commission report lays bare the horrific impact of the scheme and the obvious lack of due care of the impact, by those politicians responsible.
Those responsible must now be held to account. And if the government pays their legal fees then how can there be personal responsibility or incentive for other politicians to take heed and do better?
Without personal accountability we’re simply sanctioning governments to just do as they wish, without regard for the law, and without regard for the people they are supposed to serve, expecting taxpayers to fund the exorbitant cost of “making things right,” when things go wrong because they were ill thought out in the first place.
What will inevitably happen then, is that Robodebt in another form at another time, will rear its ugly head again, no lessons learned. In fact, it already appears to be doing so.