The Coalition minister in charge of Robodebt has told the royal commission examining the scheme that it wasn’t his fault it was illegal.
Alan Tudge was the Human Services Minister in the Turnbull government in 2016-17 and was responsible for the Robodebt scheme when its lawfulness over income averaging and automated recovery was first brought into question.
He vigorously defended the scheme until its demise and falsely accused hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients of owing the government money.
But he told the royal commission on Wednesday that it wasn’t his fault that the department he oversaw hadn’t ensured that the scheme was legal and that the secretary had not raised it with him.
“It’s unfathomable for a secretary to be implementing a program which he or she would know to be unlawful,” Mr Tudge said.
He said the program had undergone a rigorous cabinet process, which always has a “legal overlay”.
“So the Department of Social Services’ lawyers would have had to form a view that it was lawful,” he said.
“The Attorney-General’s Department has to form a view in relation to the legalities of this initiative.
“I also became aware, I think at that stage, that income averaging … had been used for decades under successive governments. My focus was very much on the administration of the scheme and how should that be addressed.”
When asked by Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission Justin Greggery KC if he understood the concept of ministerial responsibility, Mr Tudge said he did, but it was not right to say he was responsible for the legality of the scheme.
“I accept and understand deeply the Westminster concept of ministerial responsibility,” Mr Tudge said.
“I don’t accept the proposition that I was responsible for an individual not making a choice to not raise a matter … I was responsible for the implementation of the scheme.”
Mr Tudge subsequently conceded that he was responsible for the “lawful implementation” of the scheme.
The former minister’s media secretary at the time, Rachelle Miller, appeared before the royal commission on Tuesday and told of how personal Centrelink information was leaked to “friendly right-wing media” in a bid to embarrass protesting victims of the scheme.
“The minister requested the file of every single person who appeared in the media so that we could see the exact transactions that they’d had with Centrelink and understand what the details of their case were,” Ms Miller said.
Now in opposition, Mr Tudge remains in the federal parliament as the shadow education minister.
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 the cause of significant mental health harm for many debt recipients. It was scrapped in 2020, with then-prime minister Scott Morrison promising that wrongly recovered debts would be repaid by the government.
Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy condemned the scheme as illegal in 2021 and approved a $1.8 billion debt repayment settlement.
In August 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese established the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, which must report to the government by 18 April this year. Inquiry hearings continue.