Former government services minister Stuart Robert placed his loyalty to cabinet ahead of all else once he was informed that the Robodebt scheme was likely illegal.
The Royal Commission into the illegal automated debt recovery program heard Mr Robert describe himself on Thursday as a “dutiful cabinet minister” who publicly defended Robodebt even after being made aware of its shaky legal status.
But he also said he took “absolute responsibility” for the scheme’s implementation while he was the minister and that he moved quickly to end it even while publicly defending it.
“As a senior member of the government, I take absolute responsibility as part of cabinet solidarity for this,” he said.
“But I also take responsibility for being the minister to say, ‘we have got to get advice to stop it now’.”
Mr Robert said despite his personal misgivings, he held the government’s line in media interviews when asked about the damage Robodebt was causing.
“Just because I have a reservation does not mean I am going to go on Laura Tingle’s [7:30] program and say the government’s policy is wrong,” he said.
“That is just not how a Westminster government operates.
“As a cabinet minister, I don’t get to choose the policies I agree with or don’t agree with.”
He strongly refuted evidence from former human services secretary Renée Leon earlier in the week that he disregarded advice that the scheme was illegal.
He denied having said “legal advice is just advice” and the department would “double down” on Robodebt after receiving such advice.
“I had it [legal advice from the solicitor-general] for two hours before I walked straight into the prime minister’s office unannounced and put it down and said, ‘we need to stop this’,” he said.
The inquiry heard earlier from news photographer Matthew Thompson, a victim of the scheme, who said he suffered a heart attack after receiving a false Robodbebt bill for more than $11,000.
He said he had been taking photos of other victims of the scheme when he received his own notice, which he said had a massive impact on his physical and mental health.
“It made me feel like a criminal and a cheat,” Mr Thompson said.
“It really messed me up.
“I really struggle with the way that politicians talk about people like me. It makes me feel like a welfare cheat.”
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 hearings continue.