The federal health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar are lucky men. The three have been spared contempt of court charges after issuing a grovelling, if belated apology to the Victorian appeals court, chief justice Marilyn Warren and her colleagues Stephen Kaye and Mark Weinberg.
The apology was reluctant: only last week the two ministers and Sukkar, via solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC, expressed half-hearted regrets for making potentially prejudicial remarks about an appeal that was before the court. They accused the judges of being “hard-left activists” who were “divorced from reality”. Hunt accused the court itself of being a forum for “ideological experiments”.
Only when Warren warned the trio there was a prima facie case of contempt against them did they withdraw their remarks, which were published on the front page of the Australian, and apologise unreservedly. As is so often the case, sorry is the hardest word to say.
Most reasonable people would regard an apology as more effective and more sincere when it’s not said under the very real threat of jail time, the end of one’s career and bringing down a government all at the same time. But let’s step away from this unusual case and consider the predicament of the human services minister, Alan Tudge, who might be thinking about whether he owes a second apology.
Tudge and the social services minister Christian Porter have presided over the roll-out of Centrelink’s automated debt collection system, otherwise known as robo-debt. The manifold failings of the system have been exhaustively documented. The massive #notmydebt social media campaign precipitated a Senate inquiry, which released its findings on Wednesday night, and a critical report by the commonwealth ombudsman.
Let’s recap briefly some of the system’s most egregious flaws. The income averaging method, which wrongly assumed recipients of welfare benefits to be working all year. The reversal of the onus of proof onto often vulnerable individuals to prove they did not have a debt, often necessitating hours or days spent searching for documents so old they were no longer legally obliged to have kept them even for tax purposes.
The rapid unleashing of debt collecting agencies onto those effectively accused of welfare fraud, often before individuals had been correctly contacted. The automatic imposition of a possibly unlawful10% debt recovery fee. The psychological trauma experienced by people slugged with often large debts they had no idea they owed (and in many cases did not owe).
Not to mention the overwhelmed and intimidated who paid up regardless, just to make the whole thing go away.
Then there’s the trauma experienced by equally overwhelmed Centrelink staff, whose agency has been cut to the bone by job cuts. For those in need of assistance, it means lengthy waiting times caused by inadequate resources. For those whose unfortunate job it is to eventually answer their calls, it means dealing with stressed, frightened and understandably angry people. All day.
Porter is on record as saying this debacle is not a matter for apology. “What we have is a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are paying people exactly what it is that they are dutifully required to receive and no more and no less,” he said. No reasonable person would dispute this. Unfortunately, the automated system has ensured no such thing, often seeking to take far more than the government is owed.
How much more? The Senate inquiry heard that in New South Wales alone, $18m of incorrectly calculated debt has been waived so far, out of 42,750 claims that are being reassessed. That is some stuff-up.
Any one of the many thousands of taxpayers who have been issued with a false debt notice – who have felt threatened, destabilised, stressed or depressed; who have had their time wasted; who have been made to feel like criminals for having the gall to fall back on a safety net that is designed to support them in times of genuine need – might reasonably feel they are owed an apology by an system that let them down by seeking to extort money they didn’t owe.
The former Queensland premier Peter Beattie made an art form of the political apology, deploying it as a tool of first rather than last resort to defuse the many scandals that dogged his government. This willingness to concede error kept his approval ratings high enough to allow him to eventually hand over power (some might say a hospital pass) to Anna Bligh. Before then, Beattie won three elections handsomely.
Apologies make us better people. Acknowledging and owning our failings gives us the chance to learn from them and grow, and it helps people we may have hurt to at least feel heard and understood. This applies to governments and nations as much as it does to individuals: witness the Rudd government’s apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous people.
If Tudge and Porter lack the empathy to examine their own consciences, a simple reading of the politics might help them understand why an apology might be in order. The government is well behind in the polls. Robo-debt has made victims of tens of thousands of Australians. Going after pensioners, many of whom comprise the “base” which the Coalition has endlessly pandered to, is an especially bad idea.
For now, Tudge, Hunt and Sukkar can be thankful the court of appeal has accepted their apologies and, in so doing, spared their jobs and with them their government from an ignominious demise. If Tudge and Porter remain determined not to give the people they have wrongly accused the same courtesy, they may not find them so forgiving at the ballot box.
First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2017