The Inside Word

Integrity matters! Take responsibility. 

A quick google of the word integrity comes up with 5 personal attributes: values-focused, honest, considerate, exemplary character, and accountable.  

Does integrity matter in public administration? You bet! 

The very covenant that solidifies our trust in the Westminster System has been sorely tested by the damning findings from the Royal Commission’s investigation into the Robodebt debacle.

The attributes honesty, character and accountability were broken time and time again by former ministers and senior members of the Commonwealth Public Service in this shameful chapter of human services administration. 

Is it any wonder this has been referred to the newly minted National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Australian Federal Police, while class action lawyers are lining up to bring claims.

There’s not doubt a misfeasance occurred and then continued over an unacceptable  timeframe. The architect was the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he was Minister for Human Services back in the Abbott Government and the misfeasance continued under successive ministries until it was shut down by Stuart Robert, the last minister responsible. 

As a former Minister for Social Security in the Howard Government responsible for running Centrelink for 5 years, I was well-accustomed to the political pressures for savings from welfare budgets. 

The ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’ approach for those on unemployment benefits was common practice. Going after welfare fraud is fair enough but casting wider aspersions that the overall system is being rioted is totally erroneous.

As Minister, I often had to wrestle with the ideological drive of some ministerial colleagues and departmental heads to crack down on welfare recipients. Difficult decisions had to be made and as the minister in-charge, I had to take responsibility. Applying commonsense, fairness and a well-refined pub test was always a good yard stick.

Let it be clear, every government wants to reduce the ballooning social security bill by ensuring taxpayers money goes to those most in need and to the millions of Australians on various pensions. 

Reducing fraud is an absolute necessity but what the public does not want is blanket carpet bombing of welfare recipients using dubious algorithms and date-matching to generate budget savings; savings generated by issuing thousands of false debts and chasing the most vulnerable to collect said debts. 

No wonder Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes AC SC is throwing the book at those who held office during this dishonorable period. Criminal and civil charges have been recommended for some and the reputations of the rest are in tatters. 

The findings from the Royal Commission come on the heels of the newly created NACC which came into existence on the 1st of July. Its remit to investigate and report on serious or systematic corrupt conduct in the Australian public sector. 

It’s an institution we all hope will not be weaponised by partisan politics with at least 44 referrals already made, which may include former Minister Stuart Robert.

Perhaps the threat of being referred to the NACC on its establishment is why there is a bi-election this weekend for the Federal seat of Fadden.

Fadden is located on the Northern tip of the Gold Coast held by the LNP with a solid margin of 11.2 per cent. Unlike the bi-election in the Federal seat of Aston lost by the Liberal party, the LNP in Queensland should hold this seat, but all political eyes will be on the swing. For the ALP and Bill Shorten the Robo debt scandal is front and center of their campaign. For the LNP the referendum on the Voice and cost of living crisis are the attack narratives on the Government. 

The real subliminal message for the Gold Coast electors in Fadden is how much will integrity and faith in our public institutions and Parliament will be tested by the people. Will the formation of the NACC and the broader finding of the Royal commission drive a change in standards and behaviors. In my view absolutely!

For those businesses engaged and interfacing with Government, having professional representation and integrity is crucial. For those elected officials in Parliament and those in public service the findings of the Royal Commission and the watchful eye of the NACC will be a wakeup call that integrity and taking responsibility matters. 

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