Robo-debt Royal Commission

(based on a report in The Saturday Paper, by Rick Morton, published December 10)

The RRC heard evidence that the person in charge of Robo-debt had never read the Social Services Act, which is quite clear that payments should be based on a particular fortnight, and not averaged over a longer time, as Robo-debt sought to do. Several people strongly suggested this was so, making the robo-debt scheme unlawful, but each time they were overridden. The opinion of a consultant was sought, by colouring the meanings of words, as one means of discrediting internal dissent. The Ombudsman’s efforts in response to concerned politicians and Social Service groups were thwarted, by allowing the people being reviewed to alter the report on their activities. It took three years for the question to reach the Solicitor-General, who immediately declared it unlawful, with several suicides and much distress among impoverished people having occurred in the interim.

What to do? A person keeping up to date as several Acts evolve over time is a large commitment. The commitment can be considerably reduced by having a machine read and “understand” each of the Acts, including their glossaries, their inline definitions of terms, and references to each other, potentially having different meanings for some words across the connection. It would mean that everything is linked together as it should be. If there is dissent over the wording, it can either be resolved, or left open for review. Someone coming cold to the Act in its Active Structure form can then be sure that all connections have been made, and they can confidently rely on what they read in a local area of the Act, and don’t need to read the whole thing carefully, together with its history of revision, to make sure they haven’t missed anything. Such a tool would be a godsend to tyro public servants or politicians.

This sounds easy, with the rise of technology such as Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and Large Language Models. Unfortunately, the goal of having the machine “understand” the meanings of words has largely been abandoned as too hard, and most current methods use statistics – this word is associated with that word or group of words – a method completely unsuited to the complex text found in legislation or specifications.