The Royal Commission into Robodebt has heard that Human Services minister Stuart Robert vowed to “double down” on the automated debt recovery scheme even after being told it was illegal.
Mr Robert refused to apologise for the harm the scheme had caused so many innocent Australians, according to evidence given to the royal commission on Tuesday (28 February).
Former Department of Human Services secretary Renée Leon told the hearing that the Coalition government was “very attached” to the scheme and that Mr Robert was flippant about the legal advice he was given.
Professor Leon said that in February 2019, she was informed by the solicitor-general that Robodebt was illegal.
She immediately briefed Mr Robert, she said.
“In 30 years as a public servant, I had never discovered that I had been administering a program of scale that was unlawful,” Professor Leon told the inquiry.
She said Mr Robert simply said that “legal advice is just advice”.
When Professor Leon subsequently suggested that the government should admit its error and apologise to customers, she claimed Mr Robert replied: “We absolutely will not be doing that. We will double down.”
Professor Leon said she “ended up having to stop the program in advance of a decision from the government to do so” and that she hoped the government hadn’t been previously ignoring legal advice about the scheme.
“The public service ought to have some red lines and lawfulness is one of them,” she said.
Professor Leon described the culture inside DHS at the time as “undesirable”, with senior management bent on leaving no paper trails of bad news and often yelling at staff and “publicly shaming” anyone who stood up to them.
“Once you got to the point you had to put difficult things in writing, you were potentially on a collision course with your minister,” she said.
Professor Leon also told the inquiry the Department of Social Services secretary at the time, Kathryn Campbell, was undermining her to Mr Robert.
“Ministers would tell secretaries to move deputy secretaries to other roles if they were perceived to be unhelpful, even though the minister is supposed to have no say,” she said.
“So, it wasn’t popular to give the government advice that what they were doing was wrong.”
Former Human Services minister Michael Keenan told the royal commission that he never once asked for advice on whether the scheme was lawful.
“I relied on the expertise of those people around me and, in particular, I had great confidence in what I was being told by my own department,” Mr Keenan said.
Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by DHS 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.
Mr Robert is scheduled to appear before the royal commission tomorrow (2 March).