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Call for a Joint Select Committee on Robodebt

I second the motion. I rise today in support of the member for Curtin's motion to establish a joint select committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme.

The Australian Public Service is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. Its values, its integrity and its core principle of providing impartial and independent advice are things that we cannot and must not take for granted. However, our faith in the independence and integrity of the Public Service has been rocked in recent years, with scandals such as the illegal robodebt scheme and, more recently, the ugly revelations of the politically and personally motivated machinations of one of the most powerful public servants in the country, Michael Pezzullo.

At the last election, trust in our political institutions and politicians was at an all-time low. The implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission earlier this year has been a positive step forward, but it's been just that: a first step in rebuilding trust in our democracy. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is limited by the fact that it can only investigate alleged corruption or political malfeasance after it has occurred. It does not prevent corruption from occurring in the first place. We must build integrity infrastructure into every corner, nook and cranny of our democracy, including the mighty Australian Public Service. Implementing the robodebt royal commission recommendations in full will further this goal.

Australia's constituents in the electorate of Mackellar were horrified and deeply saddened by the evidence presented to and the findings of the robodebt royal commission. Royal commissioner Catherine Holmes SC concluded that 'robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal', and the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service decried the scheme as an 'aggressive abuse of government power'. Of particular note are the comments by Commissioner Holmes, who described in her reports as 'remarkable' 'the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings'. Even if the failings were driven largely by a few rogue actors, such as the former head of the Department of Human Services, it is nevertheless clear that the APS as an institution failed Australians in a most devastating way. Add to that the more recent example of the scandal involving the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo. Cultural issues run very deep when a secretary of a department thinks he has the right to influence who is appointed as his minister, works against ministers not to his liking, pushes to supress media freedoms and generally inserts himself into the political process over a five-year period. In both cases the culture of providing frank and fearless advice dismally failed.

In light of these two egregious examples it is clear it will not be easy or a simple thing to fix the culture in the Public Service, but it is critical that we get it done and we get it done well. The integrity of our democracy depends on it. It is the duty of each one of us as parliamentarians to actively ensure that an occurrence such as robodebt never happens again and that our Public Service is as robust as possible and functioning in accordance to its values. Therefore, the implementation of the royal commission's recommendations must be done as transparently as possible so that we as parliamentarians have the information required to hold the government and the process to account. To be able to do that, federal parliamentarians need to be informed and kept up to date on the progress of the implementation of the commission's recommendations. To that end, as the member for Curtin has proposed, there must be both a joint select committee overseeing the implementation process and regular reporting to parliament every six months on progress. Explanations must be provided if the implementation is not proceeding as expected or is delayed. This is how we guarantee that the royal commission recommendations are implemented in full and in a timely manner. This is how we help rebuild the public's trust in our political system.

The future integrity and strength of our Public Service and hence our democracy depend on the fulsome incorporation of the royal commission's recommendations, so I urge the government and all members of this House to support the member for Curtin's motion to establish a joint select committee to oversee the implementation of the robodebt royal commission's recommendations and six monthly reporting on the progress to parliament.