7 March 2023

I figured Robodebt was legal and Tudge was a good bloke, Turnbull (kind of) tells royal commission

| Chris Johnson
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Malcolm Turnbull

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: File.

Malcolm Turnbull never considered the legalities of Robodebt while he was prime minister, he has told the royal commission into the scheme.

The illegal automated debt recovery program began shortly before Mr Turnbull became PM and continued throughout his tenure.

Appearing via video link before the royal commission on Monday, Mr Turnbull said the scheme’s legal status was not something he even thought about.

“Look, I did not turn my mind to the legality of the program,” he said.

“It never occurred to us that it was unauthorised, because we assumed that it was as it had been represented.”

He said his major concern with the scheme was that the debts were accurate and fair, saying he relied on his ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter to make sure they were.

He referred to messages he had sent to those ministers, once possible problems with the scheme became apparent.

“There is a WhatsApp here where you can see on the 20th of January, 2017, where I say, ‘Alan, we need a frank assessment of what the problems are and what is happening to fix them. Are you sure your department is giving you the right advice on what is happening?’,” Mr Turnbull told the inquiry.

“So you know, I guess I was pressing him, commissioner, to do his job.”

READ ALSO Shorten in peak form running commentary on royal commission

When commissioner Catherine Holmes asked the former prime minister if he thought Mr Tudge really understood how the scheme was working, Mr Turnbull described his former Coalition colleague as a responsible minister.

“Alan Tudge, I always regarded as a technocrat. He was a management consultant,” he said.

“I didn’t regard him as being a negligent or incompetent or careless minister.”

Previously at the royal commission, a former director at the Department of Human Services said she was actively discouraged from raising concerns over the scheme.

Tenille Collins told the inquiry that the then-deputy secretary of DHS, Malisa Golightly, strongly discouraged bad news over Robodebt and told her she was “not a very good public servant” if she raised any concerns.

“She did threaten me numerous times with, you know, ‘You’ll be lucky if you have a job by the end of the week’,” Ms Collins said of Ms Golightly, who has since died.

Ms Collins said she was verbally and “irrationally” abused by Ms Golightly but she never complained to department boss Kathryn Campbell about it.

“I didn’t make a complaint about Ms Golightly’s behaviour at the time. It’s something that I feel embarrassed about,” she said.

“I think if I’d had it in my mind to complain, I would have been completely comfortable going to Kathryn Campbell.

“I always found her quite good to deal with, she was very supportive of staff.”

READ ALSO Minister vowed to double down on Robodebt even when told it was illegal, royal commission hears

Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by the Department of Human Services and its successor, Services Australia, for Centrelink compliance.

It began in 2016 and became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices to welfare recipients.

It became the subject of numerous inquiries, leading to the Coalition government scrapping the scheme in 2020 and promising to repay 470,000 wrongly issued debts.

In 2021, Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy ruled the scheme unlawful.

Following Labor’s election victory last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.

The inquiry is in its final week of witness evidence before reporting to the Government by the end of the financial year.

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This Royal Commission cannot get any worse! It is incredible to believe that a man of Malcolm Turnbull’s calibre, a constitutional lawyer of such high intelligence, allowed himself to be dumbed down to such an extent by the conservative wing of the Liberal party. Malcolm Turnbull, the high profile lawyer who led some of Australia’s most prominent cases, as prime minister and leader of this country headed a government of such sleazy, devious and corrupt ambitions!

Jack D,
Income averaging had been used in the welfare sector for many years well before Robodebt. The idea that Turnbull should have known the souped up version was illegal ignores all context.

The intent behind robodebt was and is completely reasonable, the implementation was horribly mismanaged. But there’s no doubt that a form of this scheme will return in the future, once data availability and matching improves. And it will.

Trying to excuse your mates in the Liberal party and muddy the waters again chewy? Defending and distorting the truth and the corruption inherent in 10 years of a Liberal conservative government? No chewy, there were never any good intents behind the Robodebt scheme. The scheme was criminal in all intents and purposes. There has never been an income averaging scheme used by any government in Australia’s history. Social security is a basic human right offered to all citizens. The scheme protects and provides essential services to individuals and families. It is a fundamental entitlement that delivers a safety net and contributes to a fairer and more compassionate society. The Robodebt scheme was cruel and unjust in all of its forms and targeted the most marginalised. It was the most corrupt scheme ever implemented by a government in Australian history. We are seeing all of the sordid details emerge in this Royal Commission. Lies and obfuscation from government ministers and senior bureaucrats who should have known better!

I have no idea how that rant relates to the points that I’ve made.

I know you hate the Liberals, but at least try and form some semblance of a point before mashing your default content into the keyboard.

“Social security is a basic human right offered to all citizens”

Glad no one has said different, you must be replying to those phantom comments again.

“There has never been an income averaging scheme used by any government in Australia’s history.”

Completely false, why don’t you inform yourself Jack, then you might be able to make a point that doesn’t seem like you are so unhinged?

Unhinged? Well if I am honest with myself chewy I probably am a little unhinged!
If you did a little research you would find that there has never been an income averaging scheme used by any government in Australia’s history. Never ever!! These claims were made at the Royal Commission by ministers of the Morrison government but was proven wrong. In 2020 Stuart Roberts and Alan Tudge, the Ministers responsible for the implementation of the Robodebt scheme, conceded that the use of income averaging to calculate welfare overpayments had never been used in Australia and was unlawful.
However, there are income matching schemes that the taxation office uses to “manually” match reported income. Income matching is a totally separate process to income averaging. Manually matching income has been in use since the 1970’s. The scheme was expanded by the Howard government to match Centrelink payments to ATO data. This scheme remained unchanged until the implementation of the unlawful Robodebt scheme and the use of income averaging. Is that clear enough?

I’m not saying you are wrong about income averaging – but I’m not aware of the circumstances in which it is used by Centrelink. Can you advise?
I know Centrelink uses deeming for investments (assumes a certain %ge rate of return) on certain pensions and benefits but I don’t know of any situation, other than Robodebt, where Centrelink has used income averaging.
Happy for you to demonstrate I’m wrong.

Income averaging was used for the same purpose as in Robodebt for many years but had also had more manual involvement where staff would actively contact recipients to ascertain more accurate data and only fall back on the averaging for determination of benefits where the recipient didn’t respond. Robodebt removed the initual manual checks and made the recipient have to prove the information was wrong as the default.

Jack is now attempting to play with words by claiming that process didn’t involve income averaging, he now wants to call it income “matching” because of his weird political predisposition.

I notice that he’s also ignored the last bit of my comment which is

“The intent behind robodebt was and is completely reasonable, the implementation was horribly mismanaged. But there’s no doubt that a form of this scheme will return in the future, once data availability and matching improves. And it will.”

The problem with Robodebt was the availability of accurate and timely income data for recipients.

Ensuring taxpayer funds used for welfare payments only go to people who qualify is perfectly reasonable.

I have zero doubt that a similar scheme will be enacted in the future. Before the Liberals got voted in, the previous ALP government were similarly working on better automatic data matching systems.

Bob the impala6:14 pm 08 Mar 23

Income averaging had long been used as an established trigger for initiating investigation by Services Australia (and predecessors) staff. Prior to ‘Robodebt’, it had never been considered sufficient grounds to raise an overpayment debt, and such use in Robodebt was found not supportable under social security law..

Staplers have precedence for use in Services Australia but may not legally be used to staple a social security recipient’s hand to the desk.

Robodebt was unlawful. Commissioner Holmes is investigating how nonetheless it came about, and persisted.

Cheers thanks for that … makes one wonder what data matching could have been achieved with the introduction of an Australia Card as a single number for government services.

In a nutshell chewy, you claim that Robodebt was not illegal and was just a souped up version of Income averaging which had been used by the welfare sector for many years. Despite its illegality you state the scheme was completely reasonable in its implementation but was horribly mismanaged and will be reintroduced in the future.
I will again put it to you in simple language. The Morrison government targeted the most marginalised citizens of our community in an illegal robodebt scheme aimed at welfare recipients. These people were treated as criminals as part of the debt recovery process using income averaging. Income averaging had never been used by any government in Australia before. That is why this current government has established a Royal Commission to investigate Robodebt and its illegal implementation.
You are deliberately trying to misrepresent the argument by distorting income averaging and income matching. As I pointed out in my previous post, Income matching is a totally separate process to income averaging.
You are out of your depth and wrong!

“In a nutshell chewy, you claim that Robodebt was not illegal”

Do you ever stop making things up Jack?

Point to one single part of my comments where I have claimed anything of the sort.

I have never claimed anything like this and don’t believe it.

I said income averaging has been used for many years and that is 100% correct. You are the one distorting reality by deliberately not understanding the most basic concepts to suit your political narrative.

“You are deliberately trying to misrepresent the argument”

How anyone could write this whilst not engaging with what is actually written to deliberately ignore and misrepresent the points raised is hilarious. You must have written this comment staring at yourself in the mirror.

I’m not even going to bother with the rest of your continued ridiculousness. Your freely admitted political bias leaves you totally incapable of basic comprehension, nor any ability to have an objective discussion about political issues.

Chewy14 How can you claim that you didn’t claim Robotdebt was not illegal? Your exact words were “The intent behind robodebt was and is completely reasonable”. You might not have used the word illegal, but the implications was you thought it was OK. Income averaging has been used in the past to a certain degree to trigger some further investigations, but it has NEVER been used to automatically raise debts; nor to commence debt recovery before appeal processes have been completed (and in some cases before a person was even notified of the alleged debt). Income averaging can never determine a persons eligibility in a particular fortnight. Imagine someone is unemployed for the first few months of a year and has no other income. If they are actively seeking work and meet the assets test, then they are eligible for Job Seeker Allowance – no ifs or buts. If later that year, they gain employment, there is no obligation for them to repay JSA for the earlier period in the year, even if the average of their income over the whole year is greater than the JSA income test. That is, and always will be, the flaw with income averaging and why it should not automatically trigger debt recovery.

@Jack D.
The concept of income averaging is not, in itself, a bad thing when used to identify potential Centrelink overpayments. The illegal (yep totally acknowledge that) use of Robodebt to “automatically accuse” people of being overpaid and invoice them was, I agree, an unconscionable attack on marginalised citizens.
However, there are a lot of people (to repeat a phrase I’ve used in relation to exploiting the tax laws) sucking on the public welfare teat illegally. So on this occasion, I agree with chewy14 (If you look back at many of my posts, you will see I’m no fan of chewy14’s stance on a lot of things), Robodebt was conceptually sound in its attempt to identify potential overpayments – it was just poorly implemented and haphazardly introduced … it needed that intermediate step of human intervention to validate the data from the algorithm.
Just as I want to see those who avoid their tax obligations, via tax minimalisation schemes, pay their rightful due, I want to see those who rip off the welfare support system identified and weeded out.
A simple way to increase the income support payments, to those who are most in need, is to channel that part of the support payments being claimed illegally, back into the welfare bucket and use it to increase the amounts for legitimate claimants.

“How can you claim that you didn’t claim Robotdebt was not illegal?”

Because I literally didn’t.

The intent behind robodebt was and is completely reasonable”. You might not have used the word illegal, but the implications was you thought it was OK.”

The intent behind Robodebt was to ensure that welfare payments only went to people who qualified for them.

That is completely reasonable and has been one of the principles of our welfare system since it was started. It’s entirely uncontroversial. If you think that intent is wrong, perhaps you can explain why?

The rest of your comment bears no relation to my points or position. I have not once suggested income averaging is sufficient for raising debts, just that it had been used as part of the process of determining eligibility and identifying discrepancies for many years prior to Robodebt.

I have said that the scheme was completely mismanaged because the previous government’s desire could not be supported by sufficiently robust and granular income data. The cart went before the horse and the flaws should have been recognised and acknowledged well before it was fully implemented.

My position is also that as soon as sufficient data is available in the future (which i believe it is obvious that it will be), a similar scheme will be put in place to make the welfare system more efficient and better targetted.

Your claim chewy that income averaging had been used before the introduction of Robodebt is incorrect. In my argument that income averaging had never been used by governments in Australia I omitted the words “before the introduction of Robodebt”. The lack of these words changed the focus of my argument.
The entire focus of the Royal Commission is into the unlawful use of income averaging to issue debt notices to welfare recipients. Claims were made at the Royal Commission by ministers of the Morrison government that income averaging was used “before the introduction of Robodebt”. Stuart Roberts and Alan Tudge, the ministers responsible for the introduction of Robodebt, later conceded that the use of income averaging to calculate welfare overpayments had never before been used in Australia and the scheme was unlawful.
As I argued above, there are income matching schemes that the taxation office uses to “manually” match reported income. Income matching is an entirely separate process to income averaging. Income matching has been used since the 1970’s and expanded by the Howard government. This scheme remained unchanged until the illegal implementation of Robodebt and income averaging.

Trevor Willis3:48 pm 07 Mar 23

I would have thought that the women involved would have all been aware of the problems and should have not been hesitant in their actions to report issues to the minister. If a minister doesn’t want to hear the truth on an issue they should not hold that office and the employees should not be worried about their actions as long as they are true and legal

@Trevor Willis
Unfortunately, Trevor, with the politicisation of the public service, their tenet of providing “frank and fearless advice” has well and truly flown out the window.

Oh the poor privileged soul – being so unaware of the basic principles of income support that it didn’t cross his mind that Robotdebt could be wrong. Income support, such as Job Seeker and Disability Support, have always been based on your fortnightly income. What you earn at other stages of the year are irrelevant so income averaging was always a flawed concept. In fact, it would act as a disincentive for people to try to get any sort of paid work in a year when they had received any welfare payments. Anyone with a basic understanding of income support knew that.

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