7 February 2023

Porter takes some responsibility for Robodebt's failures

| Chris Johnson
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Christian Porter

Christian Porter at the Robodebt Royal Commission on 2 February 2023. Image: Screenshot.

Former Coalition minister Christian Porter has admitted some responsibility for the failures of the illegal Robodebt scheme.

He told the Robodebt Royal Commission that he was at times quite frustrated by Robodebt, but he didn’t take the proper steps to ensure it was legal.

The Robodebt scheme was a method of automated debt assessment and recovery for Centrelink payment compliance that was put in place in 2016.

It erroneously calculated overpayments by data-matching Centrelink records with average income data from the Australian Taxation Office. It was the cause of widespread condemnation and significant mental health harm for many debt recipients.

It was scrapped in 2020, with then-prime minister Scott Morrison promising that the government would repay wrongly recovered debts.

Asked by Commissioner Catherine Holmes on Thursday (2 February) if he took any responsibility for failures in the scheme, the former minister said he did.

“I do. And I look back on this and I see myself through the correspondence getting quite close at points to taking the next step of inquiry, and I didn’t do that,” Mr Porter said.

“I wish now that I had.”

Mr Porter was Social Services minister between 2015 and 2017 and also acted for Alan Tudge who was then Human Services minister.

On Wednesday, Mr Tudge told the commission that he took no responsibility for the scheme being illegal, insisting the fault lay with departmental bosses.

READ ALSO Tudge tells royal commission that Westminster doesn’t mean he was responsible for Robodebt’s illegality

Mr Porter said he was not aware of the concerns over Robodebt’s legality and never saw any legal advice during his time as minister.

But he did seek assurances that it was legislatively sound.

“I was unaware of all the comings and goings of this issue,” he said.

“I firmly had in my mind that I put this question [about sound legislation] to people and that they’d responded affirmatively.

“I can’t recall who, but a departmental person assured me, I can’t recall if it was DHS or DSS, but someone did. It happened and we moved on.”

The former minister also admitted that he gave incorrect information in the form of ‘talking points’ to the media in a bid to defend the scheme.

“There were lots of things in those talking points that through this process, and information from my lawyers provided me from this process, I now understand were inaccurate or untrue,” Mr Porter said.

“I was frustrated because I’d gone out and undertaken earlier media based on what were talking points and oral conversations with DHS people or relayed to me.

“The level of confidence they had was extraordinarily high.

“And the early media that I did was relaying those talking points and the confidence levels.”

READ ALSO Australia’s corruption and transparency ratings heading in the right direction

Mr Porter said he placed “enormous reliance” on the information given him, but feels he was let down by bureaucrats.

“I felt that I’d been disserved in terms of the information that I’d been given to go out and do large national media on the issue,” he said.

“As we went further into interrogating what was actually occurring, it seemed to my office and I that the processes hadn’t been very well designed.”

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Peter Herman8:11 pm 12 Jul 23

He is only part of it…there are more than him guilty
N as me and d sad game them all

Peter Herman9:29 am 08 Jul 23

It appears that either the ministers and PM involved in Themis stuff up, we’re either dumb, stupid, ignorant or all three
It was a man illegal system from day one, but we had a govt that had no ideas what they were doing
Everything the govt did was ‘under the table’ and nothing was ‘legal, so why are so many voters whinging about ‘Scott ‘not my job’ Morrison and his henchmen
They were all ‘corrupt’ and wouldn’t accept responsibility for anything
So glad that the truth has come out
I did have a friend in NSW that was involved with this ‘stuff up’ but they have lived to talk about it
In short fashion, those minister who played the ‘I know nothing’ game are as guilty as the bloke who instigated this total stuff up

I’d like to know what role various political staffers played in the whole saga. Over the last couple of decades staffers have had more and more ability to direct the operations of departments (regardless of what legislative or contractual controls should have been in place). A phone call from a staffer and the departments jump. What a staffer asks for, the staffer gets. But who commands the staffers? What records are kept of the various demands? And, most of all, who carries the can when it inevitably goes belly-up?

Robodebt should be applied to underperforming pollies, but I guess that won’t happen

Not The Mama11:22 pm 03 Feb 23

Porter takes responsibility. Woopy Doo. He’s untouchable now.

Robodebt ruined the lives of thousands of disadvantaged people.

If only they had gone after the cheaters and tax evaders at “big end of town” with as much zeal… But that is typical of so many governments of all persuasions. If you are overpaid one dollar then you are called a thief, if you avoid paying millions, then you are an entrepeneur.

So neither of these ministers had control or even decent oversight of their departments? Everything was the fault of the public servants. Do those public servants have others to blame too? More junior public servants? No-one is in charge of managing anything it seems, leaving it all to those beneath them to take responsibility.

Perhaps pay scales should be reversed, with managers who don’t manage getting paid the least and workers who do stuff getting paid the most? If good management had occurred, the disaster and massive human costs would not have happened. These people are paid a mozza. But then all are really paid for managing things politically, rather than achieving practically useful goals.

It is clear that Alan Tudge neither shows nor takes any responsibility for any of his actions or inaction. Pathetic.

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