Newsletter 500

Published July 17, 2023
Dalí, upon receiving his Robodebt notification

How bad was Robodebt? The more one reads about this unhappy exercise in public policy, the worse it sounds. I know it’s got nothing to do with my core topics of art and cinema, but the story is so awful, I can’t let it go.

There’s something evil about a program based on false assumptions and bad data that was always going to hurt a huge number of the most disadvantaged members of society, but none of the leading actors in this story would see it that way. In fact, Scott Morrison, with whom the buck ultimately stops, has denied all wrongdoing. The former PM takes no responsibility for the fact that half a million Australians were falsely targeted by the scheme, being harrassed by demands they pay an imaginary debt to Centrelink or lose their welfare payments.

The Robodebt Royal Commission called the scheme “a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals.” Is it any wonder Scummo’s government was turfed out in a landslide, or that the Liberal Party appears to be a spent force, with no political credibility or moral compass?

The only place this “fully automated” system seems to have used human beings was in hiring private debt collection agencies to chase ‘offenders’, handing out commissions of $11.6 million.

The human failure in the scheme came at all levels, from the politicians who pushed it through regardless of all the warnings they received, to senior public servants eager to do the government’s bidding rather than pursue sensible policy. Ditto for the lawyers who gave a pass to the plan. It was a triumph of ideology over empathy, a devolution of the public service into a slavish tool for a heartless, thoughtless government.

At the root of the problem was that perennial sense of entitlement that has become an unhappy trademark of the Liberal brand. This includes an unshakable belief that people on welfare are just plain lazy – spongers on the public purse – while business is the heroic driving force of our economy. As a consequence, business is to be rewarded with tax cuts, while the undeserving poor are made to pay for the shortfall. Think of Joe Hockey’s notorious “lifters and leaners” budget speech, or his comment that poor people don’t drive.

To this one must add those public servants focused on results at all costs, who lost sight of the fact that the statistics they juggle represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, each with their own stories of hard luck and distress. The No.1 priority was to please their political masters, even if it meant ignoring all the evidence that the scheme was fatally flawed. It implicitly assumed people on welfare were cheats and crooks that deserved to be brought to justice. Both politicians and their lackeys were oblivious to the distress they caused, even to the point where some accused debtors allegedly committed suicide.

This is an ugly echo of the United States, where the Republicans are forever striving to gut public health and welfare programs, while ensuring wealthy individuals and corporations pay as little tax as possible. One wonders how anybody could see this as practicable or sustainable. Take away welfare and one creates the conditions for poverty, chronic illness and crime. The cost of dealing with these problems soon outweighs any savings made from cutting programs. It also undermines any semblance of democracy, which recognises citizenship as a contract with the state whereby the weakest members will be supported, not left to die in a ditch.

The result in the US has been increasing political dysfunction, and this is precisely where Scott Morrison was taking us. If the slide has been arrested this suggests we are not as far gone as the Americans, but the ideological underpinnings of Robodebt are deep-rooted. They are symptoms of a class of privileged people who have never felt the need to look outside the values of their own peer group. For the public servants, it was the willingness to dehumanise its clients that is so despicable, as if people were only numbers on a spreadsheet.

Labor is treading warily on this issue, perhaps in anticipation of some goof-up of their own down the track, but those individuals who were most responsible need to be brought to justice, if only to prove that there are real-world consequences for cruel and selfish actions, and to challenge the complacent world view that would allow such things to happen all over again. I doubt that anybody will go to gaol over the scheme, but they should, at the very least, be named and banished from any role in government or public service, as a poison needs to be extracted from a healthy body.

Enough Robodebt. This week’s review looks at two Indigenous themed exhibitions in Sydney, by the  proppaNow collective at the National Art School Gallery, and Tennant Creek Brio at Delmar Gallery. The Herald’s online version has given the piece the subtle, poetic title: Two new Indigneous art exhibitions to see in Sydney this month. If that doesn’t attract readers, what will??

As it happens, the title is appropriate in its blandness, as the article has been blanded out in the most draconian fashion. Approximately one third of the piece I submitted has been removed. The cuts coincide with anything vaguely critical of proppaNOW, which I’d discussed in relation to the rhetoric with which the group defines itself. This is something distinct from the actual work, which displays a high level of accomplishment and professionalism. By contrast, the  proppaNOW packaging is strident and self-aggrandising. It’s the sort of thing I’ve discussed many times in the past in relation to different artists and exhibitions, but now it seems there are special cases in which it’s taboo to say anything critical whatsoever.

In brief, I feel as if I’ve been semi-cancelled, with no notification or advance warning. To tell the truth, I’m not exactly surprised, as the published versions of the art column have been subject to endless cuts and fiddles over the past year or so, usually for reasons I find inexplicable. I’m still able to post the original versions on my own website – which I’ll do on Tuesday, as per my agreement with the newspaper. Readers might like to tune in and sample the differences.

I’m glad the AFR doesn’t display the same degree of ideological sensitivity, as I’ve had a lot of harsh things to say about Salvador Dalí this week, in a review of Mary Harron’s bio-pic, Dalíland. The difference is that poor old Dalí has been the artworld’s punching bag for decades, largely through his own outlandish antics, which included signing tens of thousands of blank sheets of paper to faciilitate a massive scam on gullible art buyers. The film, with Ben Kingsley hamming it up in the title role, looks at the last decades of Dalí’s career, when he and his nightmarish wife, Gala, had allowed their excesses to run out-of-control. Like proppaNOW, Dalí realised there was no percentage in not blowing one’s own trumpet as loudly as possible. Alas, as a mere dead white male, there are no helpful people today to shield him from criticism.