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Catherine Holmes SC presiding over the Robodebt inquiry - photo courtesy ABC

There are plenty of photos of Robodebt Royal Commissioner Catherine Holmes, but this one's my favourite.

It catches her as in a moment of deep personal reflection, seemingly oblivious to the way she appears and, I like to think, attempting to grapple with the exact mechanics of how it was that whatever she's just heard could have possibly occurred.

There's no judgement: just a mind trying to understand the mechanics of how a system, designed to implement policy smoothly, had careered so obviously off the rails.

Holmes is a trained lawyer; Chief Justice of Queensland between 2015 and 2022. and the first woman to hold the job. As she stepped down last year Holmes spoke of how she'd suddenly become interested in law, despite her working-class background and without any lawyers in the family, as she witnessed a magistrate presiding during a work experience placement.

Statements like that can so easily sound as if they've been specifically crafted for a media soundbite. They fit smoothly into a motherhood story - young girl goes to court, sees the law at work, and ends up as Chief Justice years later. What that glib reading obscures, however, is the determination Holmes so obviously has to find out why things happen, and then work out how they can be made better.

The Royal Commission into Robodebt has exposed extremely worrying issues with far broader ramifications - photo credit: the Guardian

At the time it was established Peter Dutton claimed the investigation would be nothing more than a "political witch hunt". There are two reasons hasn't attempted to resurrect that characterisation more recently. The first is the careful, forensic way Holmes has gone about her work and the restrained method she's adopted. The second is the horrific way the evidence has come together to create a vivid picture of a system that had spiralled so dramatically out of control.

Most critically, Holmes does not appear to have begun with the aim of finding somebody guilty but has, instead, genuinely attempted to discover how and why things happened the way they did.

This is, of course, the real question that needs to be asked because it is the one with the biggest ramifications.

How is it that in 2023, more than a century after the public service was established and at a time when we have never been, as a society, better educated, how is it possible that such bad governance could flourish?

Like other journalists I'll be devouring her report when it's delivered, but what I'll be looking for is something relevant for disability. Of course I care about what went wrong with Robodebt and how it could ever have been introduced. What concerns me far more, however, is the structure that permitted it to happen. How could so many public servants have just ignored what was really going on? How could they have allowed it to happen?

These are the real questions because, although to a much lesser extent, they are similar to questions about the way disability support works in Australia.

Nobody can pretend this is currently good enough.

We have our own Royal Commission and Review into the NDIS, but that still doesn't mean we can't learn from elsewhere. Asking Holmes' might be a good way to start.

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