Roundtable address at ‘Law and Class in the Twenty-First Century’ (La Trobe Law School)

I recently attended and made up one-third of a roundtable panel at the second annual meeting of the Australian Progressive Legal Studies collective, which was themed ‘Law and Class in the 21st Century: Australia and Beyond.’ The roundtable, comprising Scarlet Wilcock (University of Sydney Law School), Asher Wolf (independent activist) and me, was focused on robodebt.

The text of my address is below. After we three panellists gave our 10-minute addresses, some 90 minutes of questions and answers followed.


Thank you for having me and I want to pay respects to the First Peoples of Australia and of Naarm, the moieties of the Kulin nation, and First peoples here today.

Modern health and social welfare law was built on Prussian social policy, which was still conservative, but glimpsed that the states could exist for the people, rather than merely to glorify the king.

Bismarck introduced public health insurance in 1883, but it was restricted to the employed and working class, with employers paying two thirds of the premium.

Health insurance schemes and the creation of modern welfare states arose in France, the UK and the US and even in NZ (in 1937). All before Australia, of course, which made moves on the fumes of Curtin’s reconstruction after WWII. But it took a loss in the High Court for any serious change to occur. It was a blessing, really.

The first Pharmaceutical Benefits Case (no. 1) led the CJ, Latham, to say that a scheme for subsidised medicine was unconstitutional. The relevant law was ‘far more than appropriation Act’ and had sought to ‘control medicine,’ his Honour said. It was the Victorian Medical Association, which jealously guarded its right to practise medicine privately — as do all medical associations – which funded the litigation. Doctors and dentists, like lawyers, have never wanted their work to be state-controlled. It’s a class thing.

The 1946 referendum putatively overcame the problem by introducing the benefits power, provided doctors and dentists retained private profit rights (that was Menzies’ condition as opposition leader). It unambiguously gave the central Parliament a power to spend on health insurance, war widows’ pensions, which my grandmother received from 1960 until 1999, unemployment benefits, single parent pay, student pay, etc.

So welfare is legally incontrovertible following the referendum; there is no question that it is a legitimate feature of the Australian federation, albeit a constitutional afterthought. Controls on welfare may thus be always already suspect.

But of course the war rages in political economy. Inexplicably because, as Rohan said yesterday, the NAIRU exists. For government policy to hit this axiomatic KPI, around a million people must be unemployed across the country.

But today’s neoclassicals do not countenance the paradox: namely, that achieving 5% unemployment means you have to pay welfare — and that’s on their theory.

This is the neoclassical version of the Marxian reserve army of labour. In theory, any one of the 5% is supposed to be ready replace your job when you fail performance review. Shoudn’t the reserve army be well looked after, kept fit and healthy to make the substitution realistic, a real threat?

Modern mutual obligations qua ‘job-readiness’ admittedly tracks with this. But it makes no sense on the Friedmannian view for welfare payments to be meagre; a well-fed unemployed can take your job.

It’s neoclassical fiction, of course. Most recipients who find themselves with debts historically have tended to be the least job ready because they are single parents who are already engaged in demanding work, or people with disabilities, including psychosocial disabilities.

I want to propose that Robodebt arose out of a unspeakably brutal prosecution regime in the mid 2000s – a history Scarlett [Wilcock] has studied in detail.

My own historical study, both of public and private materials, persuades me that prosecuting welfare debtors under the Commonwealth Criminal Code was a winning strategy tied to a misconceived drive for cheap welfare. Two of the most experienced counsel in Sydney are known to have advised their clients that there was no advanceable legal defence in view of the section’s drafting. Those counsel, the legal profession, and the Justices that heard the cases, may well have misread the s 135.2(1)(a). They thought it was much stricter than it was, or even imposed something like absolute liability on a recipient of an overpayment.

As soon as a charge sheet and summons were served on a recipient who had been overpaid as little as $3000, often at 6am in the morning by uniformed police, they would have known they were in serious trouble.

Facing a recorded conviction and hearing uncontradicted legal wisdom that the offence was practically a strict liability, all accuseds — single mothers, students, and others of certain classes — pleaded guilty and paid up any way they could, lest the conviction consign them to unemployed class forever.

But welfare criminalisation faced foundational damage in 2011 when one recipient went to the apex court alleging she had no legal duty to report her income to Centrelink, and so the criminally offence was a nonsense. With the help of Vic Legal Aid, she won. She was a single mother and migrant who had been sexually harassed at the workplace she had been overpaid by.

The government introduced curative legislation to stop the estimated 15,000 people with the same conviction profile appealing. But in 2013, Victoria Legal Aid, instructing now Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, her Honour Debbie Mortimer, appealed to the High Court for Kelli Anne Keating. The appellant argued in essence that the principle of legality made the retrospective affixation of a legal duty through curative laws a nonsense. And, at any rate, the convictions had not been secured through the adduction of evidence being led on any fault element of s 135.2(1)(a) — which would require knowledge. Keating also won, with the result that the 15,000 convictions in question before 2011 remain unsound. Not only that — around 99.75% of those convictions are unappealed and unremediated. Something like 25 have been actioned.

But when the government changed in 2014, everyone except Greens Senator Siewert forgot about it. No proposal for reviews have gathered steam.

By the time Keating was handed down, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) had grown wary of ‘welfare prosecution as usual.’ Their new practice instructions reported that, in essence, they would no longer prosecute people who failed to report their income. Only evidence of actual false statements would whet the bitter passion of the federal prosecutor. And so in circumstances where the possibility of recouping what had historically been 40% of asserted welfare debts had been squibbed through two High Court losses that had constrained the criminal system, the government found itself bereft of an alternative recoupment mechanism.

At the earliest stages of robodebt, negotiations between the CDPP and the agencies were attempted. They appear not to have gone far, despite veiled threats from the agency to the effect that the CDPP’s funding was tied to prosecution referral acceptances. And so, at around that time, in early 2015, the government identified a civil system of recoupment as the most efficient way to make welfare cheap again.

Debts, both historical and current, could be detected through automated processes whose essential flaws – both legal and mathematical — remain, even after the Royal Commission, underexplained. I can speak a lot more about this. (Consider the welfare concept of an ‘income bank’).

These erroneous debts were then asserted in threatening letters bearing AFP logos, which took the place of the uniformed police at the door. If no disproof of guilt was adduced, the asserted debts were then extracted via a contracted force of debt collectors or via tax garnishes without notice. The collectors bugged, nagged, nudged, and threatened debtors, always under a false aegis of a criminal threat, while the tax office just raided tax returns.

The eventual Royal Commission never told this backstory. It did some great things, but it also never touched on the technical problems with these debts. It tried, but it kept the legal problems high level. Commissioner Holmes did not examine the software that lay behind the statutory calculators. This is the automation problem. Apps cannot yet apply law.

And today it gets worse. Another legal misunderstanding by the agencies means that hundreds of thousands of debts going back to 2003 are unlawful. In the last few months, a person held in prison for one of these unlawful post-robodebts was quietly released. Another remains in prison, with the Ombudsman, CDPP, welfare agencies and government, all aware, and, in essence, unperturbed. In terms of class, misuse of welfare law has resulted in an effective bill of attainder, creating a criminal class through so many legal blunders

To reorient Max’s quote earlier from Althusser this morning – that the law makes the capitalist relations of production disappear – I think robodebt shows us how the law does not always succeed in ‘disappearing’ capitalist relations. And as law scholars, I think we can hope that the law can also bring them into relief. In our dreams, I guess.

Updates for September: Cosmetics and COVID-19

This month has been a busy month for my semi-scholarly work. At the start of the month, I wrote a piece for the Conversation about the so-called crackdown on the cosmetics procedures sector announced by AHPRA around 7 September 2023.

Following the publication of that piece, I was lucky to be asked to appear on a long interview for Mamamia’s The Quicky. It was a great talk and I thank host Claire Murphy for the great interview.

Over the last few days, when it was announced that a COVID-19 inquiry would be run by the Commonwealth government, its terms of reference came under scrutiny. Having co-authored and published an article earlier in the year on COVID-19 mandates — an article that I was very proud to have written, especially when it was given plaudits from now Justice of the High Court of Australia Hon Robert Beech-Jones — I was keen to provide my view on the terms of reference.

Several commentators around the country have argued that the terms of reference are unduly restrictive and a cause for complaint. That, in some ways, is understandable. After all, it is essential that critical minds and governments examine how the public health legislation was deployed during the pandemic, especially where profound human rights issues arise from coercive interventions.

However, as I argued ion ABC News Radio on Friday 22 September, the Inquiry expressly will cover questions of governance, including

the role of the Commonwealth Government, responsibilities of state and territory governments, national governance mechanisms (such as National Cabinet, the National Coordination Mechanism and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) and advisory bodies supporting responses to COVID-19.

See Inquiry TORs

Given that our Constitution does not confer on the Commonwealth a competency to make laws with respect to public health, however, the terms of reference strike me as sensible and practical.

After all, it is the states, including New South Wales, that hold the power to regulate public health within their polities. Sections of the states’ public health Acts confer different conditional powers on their relevant health ministers; and, in New South Wales, it is section 7 that gives the Minister massive powers to do whatever they consider to be necessary when, on reasonable grounds, they consider that a situation has arisen that is likely to be a risk to public health, and they seek to deal with the risk and its possible consequences. My phrasing, above, is a little garbled, because it seeks to paraphrase the wording of the provision, which is as follows:

7 Power to deal with public health risks generally
(cf 1991 Act, s 5)

(1) This section applies if the Minister considers on reasonable grounds that a situation has arisen that is, or is likely to be, a risk to public health.

(2) In those circumstances, the Minister–

(a) may take such action, and
(b) may by order give such directions,

as the Minister considers necessary to deal with the risk and its possible consequences.

All of the NSW public health orders were made pursuant to section 7, above.

The Victorian Act, by contrast, requires that a ‘pandemic declaration’ be made before the minister’s powers are enlivened. Following the making of any such declaration, the Minister of Health may exercise their powers to make orders under s 165AI of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic), which states as follows:

PUBLIC HEALTH AND WELLBEING ACT 2008 – SECT 165AI

Minister may make a pandemic order

(1) The Minister may, at any time on or after the making of a pandemic declaration, make any order (a pandemic order) that the Minister believes is reasonably necessary to protect public health.

As is obvious, these powers are held by state ministers. They are not controlled or controllable by the Commonwealth government, or any Commonwealth minister. Arguably, any influence exerted by a Commonwealth minister over a state minister to exercise their powers in a particular way may give rise to a misuse of the power, inasmuch as the requisite ‘consideration’ (New South Wales) or ‘belief’ (Victoria) of the health minister has to be held by that relevant state minister. Sure, a health minister’s belief or consideration may be reconfigured by additional information from other actors, including their equivalent ministers in other Australian governments. But the legal fact is that the Commonwealth cannot really repeal, remake or otherwise alter or even influence this power; and this is a point that I have found has been missing from the public debate about the scope of the COVID-19 inquiry.

What would be the best outcome of an inquiry into the way the state health ministers exercised their powers? Would the Commonwealth recommend that the state ministers must have approval from the Commonwealth before exercising these powers? Would they be required to consult? This would seem to be completely contrary to the design of the Constitution, which, as Quick and Garran point out time and again, was premised on a fair compromise between the new central government and the colonies: the states would retain independent powers across a range of areas, including, as I think it must be inferred, health. I am not opposed to more centralisation; however, I think it;’s important to understand what we are proposing when we ask for a Commonwealth inquiry into the exercise of state power. And so I was pleased to feed that into the debate via national radio.

My request, alas, remains with ABC Archives for a copy of the recording! (It cannot be replayed like some other programs on ABC listen, etc).

In the meantime, I feel more compelled than ever to revise and rewrite the serious consideration that I developed in 2018 on the division of health power in Australia — an article that, for various reasons, did not make it through peer review at the top journals but which I have been told several times since would make a sorely needed contribution to the literature in this area. The best articles on the topic I have found are two oldies and a newie:

Two conference papers to wrap up the year

In November I delivered two conference papers. I summarise them below.

From cell transplants to genome edits: Regulation and bioethics of existing and emerging interventions for sickle cell disease

This first paper was a ‘rapid-fire’ talk at the Australian Association of Bioethics and Health Law (AABHL) conference (‘Making Connections’) in Hobart, Tasmania, on 17 November. This talk summarised some of the work I have done on the bioethics of somatic cell genome editing with my colleague Prof Dianne Nicol. The most promising and translation-ready genome editing treatment around today seems to be CTX-001, manufactured by Vertex Pharmaceuticals. CTX-001 has been developed to treat sickle-cell disorders (SCDs).

SCDs comprise a group of genetic disorders of red blood cells (RBCs). Hemoglobin in RBCs usually carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and removes carbon dioxide. In the SCDs, a ‘sickle’ hemoglobin (‘HbS’) molecule is expressed within the RBCs. Generally speaking, if you have two HbS genes, you might have sickle-cell anaemia. If you have one HbS gene (heterozygous), you might have beta thalassemia.

The HbS molecule in the RBCs comes from the HbS gene. The HbS gene is a mutation thyat occurs when glutamic acid is replaced by valine. GAG becomes GTG on the HbS gene (at chromosome 11p15.5), which results in the HbS gene. Pathophysiologically, once the HbS gene mutation occurs, the HbS molecule within the RBCs results in a situation where, under reduced oxygen tension, you get polymerisation of the RBC, and this turns the cells (erythrocytes) into the characteristic sickle cell shape. When the RBCs are in this sickle shape, they obstruct blood flow, causing ischemias or vaso-occlusive crises. This then deprives the tissues of oxygen, creating respiratory issues that can be very serious.

CTX-001 is a new treatment to treat and potentially cure SCD. This paper examined SCD and its prevalence, identified its significant impacts on African American and African populations and analysed the bioethics of the best existing treatment (the allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant, or a bone-marrow transplant). The paper then contrasted the bone-marrow transplant with the CTX-001, the yet-to-be-approved somatic cell genome therapy, and briefly noted the bioethical implications of administering CTX-001.

The paper was largely based on a book chapter contribution that I have written with Dianne Nicol titled Bioethical decision-making about somatic cell genome editing; Sickle-cell disease as a case study, which has been accepted by the editors of the Springer Handbook of Bioethical Decisions and will presumably be published in 2023. Slides from my talk (title page below) are viewable here.

Teaching constraints: Why we should (but don’t) teach the Commonwealth ‘spending’ power (among other things)

The second paper was presented at a symposium of law academics from around Australia held at the University of Sydney on 29 and 30 November and called Teaching Material: Symposium On The Pedagogy Of Political Economy In Australian Law Schools (program here).

This paper was one of my first serious attempts as a legal scholar to write about public finance law. In writing the paper, I learnt a lot, including from Will Bateman’s excellent book Public Finance and Parliamentary Constitutionalism (CUP, 2020). The essence of my talk was the ‘spending power,’ which is generally understood to be reposed in section 83 of the Australian Constitution. However, sections 81, 3 and 66 also deal with the Executive Government’s ability to spend by reference to Consolidated Revenue Fund, and so I made reference to those sections as well. But the main claims I was making were as follows.

There is no textbook dealing with public finance law in Australia, or in the UK, Canada or New Zealand; this represents an almost unbelievable lacuna in legal knowledge that shall continue to dog learning and epistemic understanding until we build a textual knowledge base.

There are three examples of how complicated public finance law can be; but, when we look at these examples, we can readily see (1) just how easily these complications can be resolved, and (2) why it is so important to resolve them.

The first complication is the notion of the spending power under s 81 of the Constitution; that power is not generally a parliamentary power but one exercised exclusively by the Executive Government of the Commonwealth; in other words, federal MPs not a part of the Executive are powerless to block spending or ‘block supply,’ with the effect being that there is really nothing anyone can do outside the Executive to control how much, or how little, the Commonwealth spend on its projects

The second complication is that the Consolidated Revenue Fund, which exists by dint of the ‘appropriations power’ (Constitution s 81; but also ss 83, 3, 66) is not actually a finite ‘kitty’ into which taxpayers’ taxes are deposited (eg, by the Australian Taxation Office), as appears to be largely assumed. Rather, the CRF is more complicated. It is a legal concept; and it is notionally self-executing and does not actually appear to be accessible, or its full quantum knowable, at any single point in time. This may be as confusing for students as it has been for apex courts!

The third complication is the seemingly unknown fact that special appropriations and standing appropriations can set aside (‘hypothecate’) or even ‘bake in’ an unspecified amount to be spent on a government program over an unspecified period of time. This means that spending can be effectively automated. For example, Medicare: will a person entitled to a rebate ever have their request declined because there are ‘insufficient funds’ in the CRF? No.

The point of bringing this into relief is to show that, as with legal knowledge about the legal ‘abstraction’ that is the CRF, knowledge about appropriations, and specifically ‘special appropriations’ (including knowledge about the common law and operations of the finance department), shows us: (1) precisely how government can lawfully spend money (for what purposes); (2) how it determined this (and it appears to be self-determined and open-ended (see Brown v West; Combet v Cth); (3) whether an appropriation that is an ‘Advance to the Finance Minister’ (AFM), for example, is lawful (it is: see Wilkie v Cth; Aus Marriage Equality Ltd v Minister for Finance); and (4) whether appropriations can include money that is not government money (seemingly they can, through ‘net appropriation’ agreements determined by the Finance Minister under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 (Cth) s 31).

As the slides reveal, for each of these ‘complications’, there is a respective ‘teachable’ that shows us so much more about the reality of government spending. The paper then goes on to illustrate its claims through an example of a fictitious Act, the Bigger Medicare Act 2022 (Cth). I am hoping to write this up as a paper in the new year, once I finish some other work. The slides (title below) are viewable here.