The Government is Criminal!: The Robodebt report is to be commended, but there are deeper social processes in play

John Hinkson

7 Nov 2023

The accusation that a government is criminal is usually a throw-away line, a sign of disaffection over some action that outsiders or opponents regard as immoral. It is not actually a legal claim. In its stronger forms, it may be a wish that the act in question could be addressed legally, but usually it is a statement based in political division.

Reading the accounts of the Robodebt Royal Commission by Rick Morton week by week in The Saturday Paper, it was striking to find that some of the actions of the various parties were emerging as potentially criminal in a legal sense. As it turned out, this was certainly the view of the Royal Commissioner, Catherine Holmes. In her scathing account of the behaviour of certain individuals—both politicians and public service administrators—she also laid bare the deeply anti-welfare assumptions of many who were involved, as well as the complete incapacity to empathise with those on the receiving end of claims and threats issued by those in secure power. She addressed both morality and legal criminality. While one does not collapse into the other, criminality is a special case of an unwinding of relations based in morality.

The claims of welfare fraud and overpayment made by the public service against individuals depended on computer models mostly divorced from the world of real debt. Rather than being based in the particular commitments of particular individuals—the way of the world of debt throughout history—these claims relied on an averaging process established by computer models, something closer to the abstract world of quantum physics where probability rules the day. As such, they prepare us for how artificial intelligence well may work in the future, divorced as it must be from the world of real individuals and social groupings. Certainly the practices associated with Robodebt stepped beyond those taken for granted in the everyday world.

The highly technical claims being made via very abstract means added to the difficulty experienced by welfare recipients in dealing with unresponsive bureaucracies, for these public service claims were in almost no sense available for rational discussion. Those on the receiving end were powerless, often beyond hope. The determination by government ministers and senior bureaucrats to pursue certain paths even when confronted by others with the illegality of their actions is at the centre of this sorry chapter in government.

Whether the Royal Commissioner’s referrals for legal action are successful remains to be seen. But however this tale may unfold over coming months, it raises a larger question about why corruption bridging into criminality might be occurring in government and related institutions at present. This is not a question of which individuals acted criminally. Nor is it a question of whether there are more individuals willing to act in a criminal way today. These are important questions, but the concern in this article is what is happening to our social institutions—and social order—that might be allowing or encouraging criminality in these sectors to flourish.

Social institutions can go into decline, opening the way to and even generating criminality. We do know historically about this phenomenon of societies effectively collapsing, with examples from ‘advanced’ countries such as Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s. Germany experienced institutional devastation after the First World War, where a crippling war settlement ushered in the effective collapse of money, with rates of inflation reaching levels that saw money being transported around cities in wheelbarrows to pay bills. More recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall and, by some accounts, the crisis that issued from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, led to the unworkability of many institutions and widespread poverty, as well as criminality at all levels. In both these cases, social institutions ceased to function and criminality could rise in various forms in the context of social and political disarray.

The decline of social institutions, undoubtedly a large part of the story of Robodebt, is a different but related process. It is noteworthy that Commissioner Holmes went beyond the question of individual criminality to propose various reforms to do with strengthening the public service (the world of politicians was beyond her powers). She could see the importance of social institutions in shaping behaviour and the maintenance of social settings through actively valued principles. This is far more important in a broad sense than the actions of individuals.

Robodebt is not the only example of recent systemic criminality, not to mention degraded moral responses, within the government sector. At the same time as Robodebt was being exposed, another example was also emerging: the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) scandal. Here, a PwC consultant to government took advantage of inside information and decision-making in that role to advise international corporate clients on how to avoid changes in the Australian tax regime. Again, in this case there are questions not only about individual criminality but also changes in institutional practices at a systemic level setting up conditions that may lead to criminality.

It is clear from the Robodebt report that the weakening of the public service in its relation to government ministers is a major problem—in particular its lack of independence, sense of responsibility and even knowledge of public sector values. By implication, the relation between government ministers and the public service had over time been reduced to one of power: of politicians over public servants and within departmental hierarchies, including politicians’ power to terminate senior public servants.

It is refreshing that Commissioner Holmes’s report is practically and morally engaged. Report recommendations include consideration of the implications of the structural divisions between policy and service, which weaken both the knowledge and the practical force of public service responsibility at the service level, such as in Centrelink in its dealings with clients. But mostly they are focused on the need to educate public servants in the importance of ‘robust and evidence-based advice to Ministers, [given] frankly and freely’, and the need for service delivery to ‘fully understand the cohort of citizens impacted and to keep their best needs central to any policy advice or actions’. These are of course important interventions in a scheme that treated many, especially the young, as though they were of no value other than to line the coffers of government, whatever the cost.

Labor in power has already accepted these recommendations, but Commissioner Holmes seems not entirely convinced by this acceptance. While it is not spelt out, she seems to be concerned about the practical implementation of the recommendations, and this suggests more pervasive problems in understanding what’s really at stake. For this is not a matter that will be readily fixed at the political level. The Albanese government may adopt more appropriate language, and on the PwC issue, important investigations are continuing, led by impressive women MPs, again with significant implications for the public service. But there are deep cultures involved here, and whether these broad investigations into Robodebt and consultancies can impact these is a moot point.

To return to the import of those earlier examples of institutional collapse, it might be argued that the tendency to criminal actions in government in the present period arises out of more general social processes of which the decline of the public service is but one expression. Quite beyond the issue of individual prosecution, or education about the principles of public service, the concerns expressed here bear on the broad question of what kind of society we are becoming.

Despite the widespread critique of and turning away from any concept of political revolution since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western societies have in recent decades been undergoing a profound cultural revolution that reaches more deeply into our individual and social make-up than any political revolution could ever hope to, as has much of the world. Carried on the social transformations wrought by the techno-sciences, social and institutional life has transitioned into a world of instrumental and abstract associations facilitated by distance communication technologies such as email and the internet, themselves facilitated by the computer revolution, which in turn now applies algorithmic logics to the organisation and discipline of segments of the population.

In everyday life, this new world is increasingly characterised by speed, anonymity and movement. High technology offers a kind of society where social relations shift in their balance away from the face-to-face and emplaced institutions towards knowing and dealing with others at a distance, including the radical atomisation of individuals navigating complex systems far from anything like common sense.

The whole history of modern government and public service began to unravel in the 1980s under the influence of the shift to the deregulation of currencies, which was directed towards emerging global markets and the economic globalisation made possible by the new technologies. Popular theories of new administration emerged in this period too, in step with neoliberal principles, to which even the traditional parties of the Left readily subscribed.

This became the world of the managerial expert and of global professional advisers, increasingly located within corporate organisations, which would go on to service the emergent global order. Strange things began to happen. Rather than the ongoing development of layers of embedded knowledge that enhanced reliable, multi-layered advice, the public service was subject to increasing mobility. And the growing tendency to bring in the outside administrator as manager, who had no actual knowledge of the public sector, had effects similar to that found in the universities in the same period, where ‘managerialism’ dictated that administrators were preferably outsiders with no necessary in-depth knowledge of what academic work entailed. The institution continued, but the principles on which it was organised were fundamentally changed and it too went into decline from the point of view of actual public service.

The break-up of everyday worlds that has followed this transformation of social life also throws political life into disarray. This is a large story, well beyond what can be illuminated in this comment, but it is not surprising that it is hard to find leaders of substance in the midst of this turmoil and transformation. In many respects, the old political system is unravelling. The old parties begin to flounder because their strategies no longer respond to the needs and aspirations increasingly expressed by the electorate. The electorate is confused and changeable about what it wants. Politics becomes more self-centred, less able to formulate attractive collective narratives, and politicians find it more difficult to bond to others (within parties) over time. These are the settings that attract many to conspiracies and shysters, seen most clearly in the many lives and destructive behaviours of Donald Trump. If Trump is a spectacular example of this transformation, what counts as ‘mainstream’ politics is increasingly self-serving and opportunistic. Career politicians whose connections with lobbying groups and industry provide lucrative post-political careers in the weapons or financial industries, only increase the cynical relationship between the public and politicians.

These changes in the nature of the social order play onto administrative organisations. No doubt organisations that don’t change with the times can become ossified. But there will never be a strong culture committed to responsibilities towards citizens unless there is predictable continuity of staffing. The education of individuals—the solution recommended by the Robodebt Royal Commission—does not take into account these background transformations. It will never substitute for a socially determined situation where the build-up of knowledge within a cohort is passed on to those who enter at a later time. The public service requires the cooperation and back-up inherent within the relation of generations almost as critically as does a kinship system. Tenure to protect ‘fearless advice’ as well as the development of knowledge over time, not merely a ‘commitment to fearless advice’, is critical as a means of maintaining an institutional culture. The loss of this protection is now widespread in the public service and in public-orientated institutions such as universities.

The public service is also dependent on a strong university sector as a provider of a reliable knowledge base and graduates inclined to public service. And as the university has been transformed in this period towards wholly into a support for industry, its knowledge base has also been significantly reduced to industry knowledge—instrumental knowledge. Ironically, the PwC scandal is actually small beer compared to what its competitor McKinsey (aided by Labor’s John Dawkins) achieved in the 1980s, redirecting university development away from interpretive knowledge and towards career and industrial knowledge, to the point where the Arts are today close to being abandoned, and universities now spend substantial amounts of their budgets on external consultants. The suggestion that this whole sector of external corporate advice is value-free and apolitical hardly stands up when the advice is set within developmental assumptions that favour a social order characterised by what I have been calling the cultural revolution associated with the rise of the techno-sciences: a movement that is hostile towards generational cooperation and is grounded in fleeting social relations. This is where the true undermining of the public service lies. These processes are only touched on at the margins by the Robodebt report.

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There is a slippery slope in these developments that weakens the public service to the point where institutions can be said to ‘lose their soul’—to lose their sense of their ground commitments and become no longer able to resist the possibility of criminality and immorality as part of a collapse of embedded institutional values. These are systematic features of potential institutional collapse.

The emergence of criminality in institutional life depends upon conditions within the institutions as well as conditions in the broader society. For a generation or more, Western societies and now the world globally have been undergoing a systemic transformation that undermines the social conditions for knowing and trusting others generally, and specifically, knowing and trusting in public institutions. Both grounded knowledge that is not easily open to conspiracy and the capacity to empathise with the situations of others are essential for a secure society. These are threatened by the demise of predictability within social institutions, as well as the more basic attenuation of the relative fixity of the face-to-face in social life as a broad ground for empathy and morality. This so far unrelenting process is the basis for institutional decline and the emergence of criminality among those who are meant to serve us.

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About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

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