“Perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanise them”.
The Royal Commission report into the Robodebt scandal has shone a spotlight on the leviathan that is now the Australian government. Not surprisingly, the Albanese government has distanced itself from the findings, portraying the ill-conceived scheme as a failure of their political opponents. Most of the media frame it as a failure of the Coalition government.
In neither case is the integrity and generosity of government as an institution ever questioned, nor its proper role in society. Bill Shorten made this clear when he said: “There is an ethos in Australia that the Government always has its people’s best interests at heart and, in legal matters, is a model litigant.” From his perspective the Coalition betrayed this ethos.
It is a belief in which the Australian government represents the pinnacle of virtue. Not mere mortals pursuing their own self-interests, but a congregation of the anointed ones.
This ethos of government as inherently good is pervasive and has allowed it to become impervious to failure.
Yet we don’t have to look back too far to find a pattern of systemic government blunders, with substantial human and financial costs. Let us remember just a few within recent memory:
- Green Loans Program (2009-2010). Thousands of assessors who invested their time and money were left with unfulfilled work promises.
- Home Insulation Program (2009-2019). The death of 4 young installers sparked a Royal Commission which concluded it was a “serious failure of public administration”.
- Building the Education Revolution (2009-2011). A $16.2 billion ‘stimulus package’ resulting in hugely inflated construction costs and waste.
- Vocational Education and Training FEE-HELP Loans (2012-2016). Hundreds of vulnerable Australians were left with large debts for courses they never completed or started.
- Jobactive Employment Services (2015-2022). Delivered high profits for job agencies and a bureaucratic nightmare for job seekers.
Much can also be said about the NBN rollout, the NDIS, Snowy 2.0 and the ongoing PwC tax leaks scandal. Time after time a series of scathing, damning, blistering reports, inquiries, audits, and Royal Commissions have analysed the reasons for each successive failure, the lessons learned, and the specific details that need to be corrected to ensure the good intentions of central planners are not botched by implementation mistakes.
In the wake of the Robodebt report there are calls for a change in the culture of the Australian Public Service: a renewed Code of Conduct and Values with an emphasis on stewardship and a primary focus on the people the APS is meant to serve.
Missing from the report and the discussion is the one recommendation that would ensure that Services Australia cannot continue to harm vulnerable Australians (especially in the age of AI): dismantle it.
Human tragedies, large and small, have been enabled by bloated centralised bureaucracies throughout history. The more concentrated the power structure, the bigger the tragedy. Hannah Arendt, reporting in 1961 on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a major Holocaust perpetrator, observed: “the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government.”
In the context of a more dispersed power structure, a giant Australian bureaucracy is still capable of causing severe harm as we have seen with Robodebt and numerous other cases. The response should be to reduce the source of this harm to its minimum expression, not to defend it or reform it.
The fundamental mistake is to endow government with high moral values, higher than those of private citizens. A fair and just society is not built by abdicating social responsibilities and delegating them to an external agent, one with coercive powers and a perverse incentive structure.
Governments are not benign. In reality, “the individual bureaucrat is not attempting to maximize the public interest very vigorously but is attempting to maximize his or her own utility just as vigorously as you and I.”
Acknowledging the primacy of self-interest is not incompatible with a natural tendency to help others and engage in charitable activities or mutual aid.
Australia has a proud history of friendly societies that provided vital financial and social support to many communities before they were crowded out by government welfare.
At the beginning of the twentieth century nearly half Australia’s population was connected to a friendly society. How much good could civil society do today with a fraction of the resources removed by a confused bureaucracy mostly concerned with finding its own soul?
Despite being pushed aside and distorted by the expansion of government, Australia’s strong volunteer tradition never disappeared. We see it all around us, in the selfless actions of millions of people, each with their own unique talents, experiences, and circumstances.
We take care of our own.
That is an Australian ethos worth upholding.
 Tullock, Gordon; Seldon, Authur; Brady, Gordon L. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice.
 The Seven Waves of Volunteering in Australia: a brief history. Melanie Oppenheimer and Sue Regan.
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Lionel is an IT engineer with more than 20 years’ experience developing enterprise applications in the private and public sectors. He completed his computer science degree in Venezuela in 2001. Then in 2002, Lionel moved to Australia after obtaining an international internship in Canberra. He became an Australian citizen in 2008.