Robo-debt redemption: Here’s how to put wellness back in welfare

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In remarkable fashion, royal commissioner Catherine Holmes has combined humanity for the victims of robo-debt with unflinching scrutiny of what went wrong with the failed welfare repayment scheme. Her report, at nearly 1000 pages, compellingly sets out where blame lies and how accountability can be pursued, as well as how legal and administrative processes should be strengthened.

But we shouldn’t miss the deeper structural problems in the Australian welfare state that this royal commission has brought to light. More profoundly, though, we’ve been presented with a rare opportunity to disrupt punitive, stigmatising attitudes towards the poor.

Robo-debt royal commissioner Catherine Holmes, SC, delivered her 990-page report to Governor-General David Hurley on Friday morning.Credit: AAP

The report stresses the need to take vulnerability seriously, design policies and processes “with a primary emphasis on … recipients”, and involve advocacy groups and frontline staff meaningfully in programs.

“I was trying my best to keep my house – the roof over our head,” robo-debt victim Sandra Bevan is quoted as telling the commission. “I was working so hard… It was just a really horrible time. And it was just made worse by these constant accusations of me… apparently doing the wrong thing when I went to such lengths to do the right thing.”

As citizens in a national project, we are all responsible for the common good and realising a just society. There is now a collective task – for all of us – to reimagine our welfare system and translate the lessons from the royal commission into transformative reform. Here are three ways to get started.

First, we should see humans as relational beings with intrinsic dignity – and act accordingly. Welfare provision is best viewed as a web of relationships and supports that enable human flourishing, rather than instrumental interactions or transfers. Frontline workers must be given the time, skills and resources needed to engage with welfare recipients as self-determining persons with full, complex lives.

Our assumption of homo economicus – people as competitive and driven by an individualistic desire to maximise material gain – needs to give way to what the visionary British welfare reformer Hilary Cottam calls sapiens integra. Cottam talks about “whole, connected human beings with our unique aspects and blemishes, affects and defects” – beings that “become who we are in relationship to others”.

Even for the most hard-headed policymakers and politicians, this paradigm shift is necessary: after all, as the commission makes clear, good outcomes are rooted in sensitivity to individual circumstances and trusted relationships between those providing care and services and those who benefit from them.

Welfare recipients deserve dignity and respect, not punishment.Credit: AFR

Second, we should replace the image of welfare as a “safety net” with one of a robust floor upon which citizens can stand tall and cultivate their own agency. “I was just really devastated by it because I was trying my hardest in life to be a good person, to be a contributing person to society,” Bevan had told the commission, “and this robo-debt, this debt that was over my head – which I knew was wrong – was just the straw that was breaking my back”.

The American political theorist Danielle Allen argues that the design of welfare policy “should focus on providing a foundation for participation in economy and society – not a safety net in which to become entangled but a stable floor, anchored by housing security, on which to stand and thrive.”

‘We should see humans as relational beings with intrinsic dignity – and act accordingly.’

Contrary to the notion of an undeserving poor that has crept into Australian consciousness, welfare reflects a deep commitment to the democratic ideal of universal participation in shaping the direction of our community and society. Such participation requires dignity, respect, and a realistic prospect of making one’s constructive mark on the world, whether through care, other work, the arts, community building, public discourse or social action. Welfare is therefore a means of ensuring each of us has a stake in what Allen calls a “committee of the whole” for the polity. It is a safeguard for real democracy – something that is in all our interests.

Empowerment also leads to better outcomes in delivering welfare. Consider the harm that could have been prevented had the voice of robo-debt victims been more clearly and loudly heard in the public discussion. Or imagine if frontline welfare workers – those who plainly saw the way in which the system was failing the vulnerable – had been given proper channels to convey their concerns, as the commission’s report calls for. A genuine focus on empowering fellow citizens would leave little surplus energy for inflating concerns about fraud or malfeasance in the system.

Finally, it is critical to stop equating cost with public value. A fixation on cost turns efficiency into the supreme virtue of the system – AI technologies and algorithms for example are eagerly deployed to that end – even when it undermines the purposes of welfare itself, degrading relationships that are key to flourishing lives. We need to see and talk about welfare as an investment in people’s capabilities, rather than mere expenditure. And efforts should be made to reflect that reality not only in our public discourse, but in public accounting too, including by better recognising the longer-term social gains from support provided to an individual today. This recalibration would also reorient the design and use of technologies to serve human ends.

Poverty is a collective choice. The welfare state is a manifestation of the kind of society we want to forge together: fair, just, egalitarian. It reflects a universal commitment to the wellbeing and prospects of all of us in a society of equals. It is time to construct a welfare system that lives up to that ideal.

Vafa Ghazavi is a political philosopher and the executive director for research and policy at the James Martin Institute for Public Policy.

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