“Commissioner, in my experience in public service, it is almost always a stuff up. I cannot think of any examples where a conspiracy has been co-opted by people to do something deliberately.”
Those were the words of retired departmental secretary Finn Pratt when he appeared before the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme.
Mr Pratt headed the Department of Social Services between 2013 and 2017 and told the royal commission on Thursday (10 November) that while he was not across the details of the failed debt-recovery scheme, he accepted the assurances from Centrelink that it was lawful.
He even signed a letter to that effect when responding to the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report in 2017.
It was on the advice of his deputy secretary Serena Wilson, who had earlier told the hearing that she had advice the scheme was unlawful but she didn’t pass that advice to Mr Pratt.
“I trusted Ms Wilson and implicitly the advice that she gave me,” Mr Pratt told the commission.
“Ms Wilson is one of the finest public servants I’ve had the privilege of working with. She was highly intelligent, highly expert and highly ethical.
“In my view, if I think people have discharged their responsibilities in good faith, then I take responsibility as secretary.”
The former secretary said public servants are good at damage control and that implementation of the unlawful scheme was more a stuff-up than a conspiracy.
“Sometimes bureaucracies can be pretty good at trying to minimise the damage from adverse reports in the media or in senate estimates,” he said.
“If you are suggesting to me that there was a conspiracy among my people to dupe me, I refuse to believe that.
“I worked with these people for many, many years and that is not the nature of these people.”
Robodebt was an automated debt assessment and recovery program employed by Services Australia for Centrelink compliance.
It began in 2016 and became hugely controversial due to its incorrect calculations and threat to issue illegal notices causing untold physical and mental health issues among notice 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 Justice Bernard Murphy ruled the scheme unlawful.
Following Labor’s election victory this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the royal commission into the matter.
Another former secretary, Kathryn Campbell, who ran the Department of Human Services between 2011 and 2017, also appeared before the royal commission on Thursday.
She blamed Mr Pratt’s department 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.
“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.