Turnbull queried fairness but not legality of robodebt

Maeve Bannister |

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull will be quizzed over his knowledge of the robodebt scheme.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull will be quizzed over his knowledge of the robodebt scheme.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says he questioned whether the department overseeing robodebt was providing its minister with correct information, but he never queried the flawed scheme’s legality.

Mr Turnbull, who led the coalition government during the height of the debt-recovery scheme, told a commission of inquiry he never doubted the system was legal because the proposal was presented to cabinet as not requiring any change to legislation.

The robodebt scheme ran from 2015 to 2019 and used income averaging of tax office data to calculate and raise debts.

Mr Turnbull, the commission’s first witness on Monday in its final week of hearings, said he urged then human services minister Alan Tudge to conduct a “frank assessment” of the scheme after negative media reports about incorrect debts in January 2017.

He said he was concerned about reports Centrelink was not ensuring people were receiving letters about their potential debts.

In a WhatsApp message to Mr Tudge, the former prime minister asked: “Are you sure your department is giving you the right advice on what is happening?”

“I ran a traditional cabinet government … I was very clear that I expected ministers to take responsibility for their departments and portfolios,” Mr Turnbull told the commission.

“I was pressing (Mr Tudge) to do his job.”

Mr Turnbull said he regarded the minister as a “technocrat” who had a lot of experience.

“I didn’t regard him as being a negligent or incompetent or careless minister,” he said.

The commission is examining how the scheme was allowed to continue once significant concerns were raised about its legality. 

Mr Turnbull said his office was concerned about the accuracy and fairness of the scheme, but not whether it was legal. 

“Cabinet was told that it was lawful in the sense that it was consistent with the legislation,” he said.

“My concern was essentially accuracy and fairness … we didn’t turn our mind to legality or lawfulness because we’d assumed that was as it had been represented.” 

But commissioner Catherine Holmes said the original proposal, which went to the Australian Government Solicitor for legal advice in 2014, did not reference income averaging. 

“If averaging is the key issue, then it may be that the AGS had not advised on that,” Mr Turnbull said. 

The government unlawfully recovered more than $750 million from more than 380,000 people through robodebt. The debt notices have been blamed for contributing to multiple suicides.

Meanwhile, former Department of Human Services official Jason McNamara told the commission an independent audit of the controversial program in 2017 was never supposed to be made public.

Consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was handed a near-$1 million contract to conduct the inquiry, but it never provided a final written report after a draft version found multiple flaws with the scheme. 

Mr McNamara said Mr Tudge and department secretary Kathryn Campbell gave a clear direction for the report never to become public under any circumstances.

“At the time, (the department) were the story in the news. This would have just poured a whole heap of petrol on it,” he said.

Mr McNamara could not recall why the final report from PwC was never handed to the department despite the invoice being paid, but he did not believe it was because of a fear it would be leaked. 

The commission will finish its hearings on Friday and a final report is due on June 30.

The deadline for the report was extended after an extra 100,000 documents were produced.

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