Kathryn Campbell has appeared before the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme for a third time, and she didn’t seem happy about it.
Questioned on Tuesday about why a 2015 ministerial brief wrongly stated there was no change in how overpayments were calculated, the former departmental secretary responded with short sentences and a string of one-word answers.
That word was often “no”.
With so much other witness evidence to the Royal Commission painting Ms Campbell as a hardline boss intent on rolling out the scheme at whatever cost, Ms Campbell appeared as though she had little else to contribute to the inquiry.
However, she accepted that a “significant oversight” led to cabinet being potentially misled when Robodebt was approved.
She denied that it was a deliberate oversight.
“I have never been in a department that has sought to mislead the government, nor have I ever been involved in an operation that seeks to mislead the government,” she said.
Ms Campbell, who oversaw the introduction of Robodebt, stated she didn’t notice a major change to the brief that misrepresented parts of the scheme.
She said she couldn’t recall whether she didn’t pay close enough attention to the document, but added that there was no ministerial pressure over it.
“As the secretary, I was responsible for what happened within the department,” she said.
“I did not notice the change in the drafting.
“Was there pressure placed on me to say that no legislation [change] was required? No.”
She denied any suggestion that her department edited the briefing paper’s language to avoid changing legislation required to implement the program.
Such legislation would have been extremely difficult for the Coalition government to get passed through both houses of parliament.
Commissioner Catherine Holmes asked if Ms Campbell considered the scheme “intrinsically unfair”, whether or not legislation had sanctioned it.
Ms Campbell replied that she hadn’t and believed the scheme was fair.
“At that time, I thought it was legal. I now know it not to be the case,” she said.
“I thought fairness had been achieved – procedural fairness – by ensuring the recipient had received the correspondence,” she said.
Ms Campbell was secretary of the Department of Human Services when Robodebt was being created and introduced and was later the secretary of the Department of Social Services as the scheme continued.
In previous evidence to the Royal Commission, Ms Campbell blamed DSS (at the time she was heading up DHS) for not being across the legal aspects of the scheme.
“We had left that to the Department of Social Services with responsibility for the legislation,” Ms Campbell said in November.
“I had not subsequently seen the details that were finally agreed by the government in the lead-up to the budget.”
The scheme was expected to raise more than $1 billion for the federal government.
This is the Royal Commission’s final week of hearing witness evidence.
It must report to the Federal Government by 30 June.