September 2023

Comment

Robodebt and the life of Canberra staffers

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Parliament House, Canberra, under storm clouds

Parliament House, Canberra. © Horizon International Images / Alamy

Does the extreme pressure put on Canberra’s overworked political staffers fuel tragedies such as robodebt?

The call came: the job was mine. Within me bubbled a decadent froth of satisfaction and imagined glory, and after the call I lit a cigarette to quietly ratify the moment. I was to be a federal speechwriter, a balladeer for the Crown – specifically, for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

I tried to imagine Canberra – a city I’d never seen. I imagined my fingers over a keyboard, composing rhetorical triumphs. I imagined boozy salons with my presumably brilliant colleagues. And I imagined the relief of my parents, whom I suspected thought me eccentrically, perhaps tragically, unfit for meaningful employment.

For weeks, my excitement simmered pleasantly. So too my self-satisfaction. The delusions didn’t last long. Within weeks, reality – that boorish creep – intervened. I’d sailed for Canberra in a dinghy of fanatical naivety, poorly made for reality’s rough seas, and my optimism and self-conception quickly capsized.

I was now wrecked upon the shores of an obscure cubicle in which my job, largely, was finding new ways to express the same platitudes – the “talking points” that were devised in the minister’s office, and that we, the department staff, understood to possess a liturgical power.

I was beholden by the same moral docility, grasping ambition and fear of disappointing the minister’s office that would engender the public service’s complicity in what is now known as the robodebt scheme, albeit in much more benign ways. The following passage, from this year’s Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme’s findings, didn’t surprise me: “[The Department of Human Services’] approach to the media … was to respond to criticism by systematically repeating the same narrative, underpinned by a set of talking points and standard lines. There was no critical evaluation of this messaging, or its accuracy … [they were] platitudes that failed to engage with the substance of any criticisms.”

And there it was, expressed neatly in a paragraph: the reason why, nearly 15 years before, I renounced my self-glorifying naivety and got the fuck out of the capital.

Rachelle Miller had arrived in Canberra not long after me, as a political media adviser for the Coalition. It was a role she held for eight years, during which time she advanced in seniority and enjoyed 2013’s triumphant transition to government. Our paths never crossed in Canberra. That would come later.

It was a dream, she once thought, and for years Miller engaged dutifully in the busy work of the media adviser: “crafting” talking points, arranging photos, briefing ministers for interviews. There was the cultivation of “friendly” reporters, and remembering the names of the hostile. There was the dreary choreography of social media. She read press clippings early in the morning, took calls late into the night. She recorded her boss’s “pressers” and shooed the gaggle away when they were done. She flew on the prime minister’s plane, drank late, was never home.

Another part of Miller’s job was spinning the moral and legal catastrophe of robodebt, after she moved, in 2016, into the office of the minister for human services, Alan Tudge. Of this time we can be grateful for Miller’s testimony to the royal commission, in which she specified, with awesome detail, the nature of her role.

With the minister’s blessing and the department’s bidding, Miller cherrypicked data to defend the unlawful scheme. Worse, with the encouragement of her boss and the approval of the department, personal details of welfare recipients who were sharing their stories with media were released to “friendly” reporters. It was an intimidatory act, designed, as Miller testified, to prevent others from speaking. It worked. Tudge’s media strategy, in the words of the commissioner, was a “reprehensible” abuse of power.

Miller’s dream curdled in 2017 and she quit politics the next year. In 2020, she told Four Corners about her affair with her boss. A year later, in a media conference at Parliament House, Miller dramatically expanded on this: Tudge, she alleged, was abusive, self-obsessed, insufferably ambitious. He was unreasonable, belittling. His moods were capricious – he could both charm and torment within minutes. Miller said that once, in a hotel room in Kalgoorlie, so enraged was Tudge by Miller’s work phone ringing at 4am that he kicked her, naked, from their bed.

Tudge emphatically denies the allegations. Two inquiries found that a lack of evidence prevented them from drawing any meaningful conclusions. But for claims of bullying and harassment, the government settled with Miller for $650,000.

In a 2021 statement, which Miller declared was given to help correct a misogynistic political culture, she said: “I wanted to hold on to my career, I loved my job. I had worked so hard to get here.” She also said: “I had marriage problems because I was never at home. I never saw my family, I was always with the Minister. I was always working. I was deeply lonely and very vulnerable.”

It is not for me to reconcile the contradictions of Miller’s sentiments for her career, other than to say that her cherished “narratives” – the artful framing, the careful selections and omissions of details that served her bosses so well and the public so poorly – could not be neatly applied to her own story. To become an advocate for female empowerment and cultural change, her estrangement from politics could not be declared as a liberation but, rather, a tragedy.

In 2021, after her statement, the ABC wrote: “Rachelle Miller has lost her much-loved political career and still struggles with the trauma of that.” The media, like political advisers, also mould rigid narratives that are unfriendly to complication – and Miller’s story was complicated. Victimisers can also be victimised, and those who uphold brutal systems can in turn be brutalised by them.

Another part of Miller’s “much-loved” job, the loss of which may or may not be personally tragic, involved feeding stories about the righteousness of robodebt to “friendly media”. Few were friendlier than News Corp’s Simon Benson, who in early 2017 gratefully accepted a slice of the Miller/Tudge “counter-narrative”. On January 26, Benson’s story “Centrelink debt scare backfires on Labor” appeared in The Australian. It described the opposition’s criticism of the scheme as “an embarrassing blunder” and its subjects as “so-called victims”. The same day, Tudge joined 2GB to discuss the story. “You must be quite happy that Simon Benson has written this piece,” the minister was asked. “Well, it’s a very significant story that he’s written,” Tudge replied, pretending that he wasn’t its ghostwriter. But there was significance, of course: it could be found in the story’s birth within a rancid media/political ecology.

The same day that Benson’s story appeared, and Tudge went on radio to celebrate it, Rhys Cauzzo killed himself. He was 28; a welfare recipient. Stuck to his fridge were several debt notices, and a drawing of a man with a gun in his mouth, dollar figures spraying from the back of his head.

I woke Saturday morning, February 18, 2017, to see half a dozen missed calls from the same unknown number. It wasn’t yet 8.30am. Anxiously, I listened to one of the voice messages: it was Rachelle Miller, and she did not sound pleased.

I’d felt rotten all week. Something wasn’t right with me. I was now a journalist with The Saturday Paper, and we were about to break the story of Cauzzo, a young and painfully vulnerable recipient of a Centrelink debt – one that was manually calculated and so did not qualify as a robodebt, but which was nonetheless dependent upon the flawed averaging model.

Critically, there was no “vulnerability indicator” in Cauzzo’s system notes, despite the department knowing his history of grave depression and suicidality. Still, the debt requests came – the government’s later replaced by a private debt collector’s.

I interviewed Rhys’s mother, his girlfriend, former colleagues. I saw the debt notices. I read his private notebooks. I read pages of government documentation. Questions were put to the department, the most significant regarding why Cauzzo had been selected for a “compliance review” and why there was no vulnerability indicator on his file.

His mother’s grief was fresh, profoundly raw. That week, I was surprised by my own spontaneous weeping. My diaphragm was fitful; my hands began to shake. What on earth was happening? “Something is wrong with me,” I said to a friend the day after the story was filed, but the day before it was published. I was heavy with a sense of doom, but I didn’t know why. Anxiety attacks, I later realised. Latent faultlines were now shifting. It was the result of accumulative pressure, I would later see, and not from that story alone – though how does one parse the influences of personal history?

I returned Miller’s call. I didn’t know then that before we spoke, she had sent an email at 7.23am named “URGENT: HEAD’S UP” to the minister and other recipients alerting them to my story. “It is one of [the] most disgraceful pieces of reporting I’ve ever seen,” she wrote. Her last line: “Nice start to the weekend!”

The work of the political spinner is never over, I guess. But nor the grief of a mother whose boy has killed himself. Miller answered the phone, and immediately began a passionate monologue, the major theme of which was my awfulness as a journalist.

Miller angrily insisted that Rhys Cauzzo was not subject to the automated system but a manual one, a distinction I’d already made in the story, but would become an indignantly recurring line from the department nonetheless – a trivial point, passionately made, and designed to deflect from graver failures (as the royal commission would later agree).

I said little, mostly listened. But then, a change: this would be a monologue of two parts. Having exhausted her spleen, Miller suddenly became more reflective, almost contrite. There should have been a flag next to his name, she said. Miller’s avenging fury had evaporated. She now spoke haltingly, uncertainly, as if she was speaking to herself and not a journalist.

I called Miller again for this piece. More than six years have passed since that morning. “I was annoyed about [your] story because it wasn’t a robodebt,” Miller says. “But that’s a technicality. For us at the time, we were trying to get the facts out there. There was a lot that I didn’t know. [My email] came out callously – ‘Oh great, this is all we need’ – but if you bear in mind that I was working 5am to 11pm, and working every weekend, I was exhausted. It’s not just me that gets frustrated – it’s everyone else. I was the person everyone hated: they didn’t want to hear from me on a Saturday. I had Alan on the phone barking at me: ‘How the fuck did you let this story out?’ I cop it. I’m the one who’s meant to talk you out of writing these stories. I was subject to a lot of bullying and harassment at the time.”

I think again of my time in Canberra. Of the weaponised glibness of political spinners, and of the senior public servants’ dread of upsetting them and their ministers – a perpetual fear that spread downwards through the department like fish food sprinkled over an aquarium.

People like Miller had considerable influence over people like Kathryn Campbell, the then secretary of the Department of Human Services, and who perhaps best illustrates the debasement of the finest credo of the public service: to advise their political office without fear or favour. The vast evidence of the royal commission revealed not only Campbell’s ruinous sycophancy, but how instinctively it was practised and how assuredly she justified it.

Had Rachelle Miller arrived in Canberra with the same idealism as me? And how was it that her career survived the death of her naivety? And what of dear Rhys? With what desires had he arrived in Melbourne, the year I arrived in the capital? He came, in part, to find a sympathetic culture, his loved ones told me. Music and art. And he played and he drew until he couldn’t.

 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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