Former minister Stuart Robert takes responsibility for Robodebt
Former government services minister Stuart Robert says he takes responsibility for continuing to implement the federal government's illegal Robodebt scheme.
Robert also acknowledged defending the disastrous Centrelink debt recovery program to journalists at a time when he knew the income averaging system it relied upon was unlawful.
The former frontbencher faced questioning for the first time during the Royal Commission into Robodebt, at a hearing in Brisbane on Thursday.
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When asked by commissioner Catherine Holmes whether he took any responsibility for Robodebt, Robert said: "Absolutely."
"But I also take responsibility for being the minister to call it out to say we've got to get advice and stop it," Robert said.
The Robodebt scheme ran for four-and-a-half years, from July 2015 to November 2019, during which time $1.73 billion in unlawful debts was raised against more than 400,000 people.
Robert told the commission he first sought advice from senior bureaucrats about the legality of Robodebt in July 2019.
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He told the commission he was led to believe there was no existing legal advice.
Four months later, the solicitor-general provided unequivocal advice that the scheme was indeed unlawful.
Robert said he immediately paid a visit to then-prime minister Scott Morrison.
"I walked straight into the prime minister's office, put it down and said we need to stop this," he said.
Robert said he "strongly refuted" claims made by former departmental secretary Renee Leon at yesterday's Royal Commission hearing that he resisted ending the program even when he knew it was unlawful.
Leon told the commission she advised Robert that the department should apologise to customers and take steps to correct its mistakes.
Instead, she claims Robert replied: "We absolutely will not be doing that. We will double down."
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When asked about the conversation, Robert said he did not recall saying those words, adding it "would be completely inconsistent" with his decision to take the solicitor-general's advice to the prime minister.
Robert also faced questions from counsel assisting the commission, Angus Scott KC, about remarks he made at the National Press Club one week after his meeting with Morrison in which he advised the scheme should be shut down.
The former government services minister was asked by a Guardian journalist why Centrelink did not defend any of the debts in court if the government had confidence in the scheme.
He replied the use of averaging was "entirely appropriate" to notify welfare recipients of possible debts.
Scott took Robert to task over his answer, saying: "Do you agree with me that the truthful response … would be to acknowledge that the government had reached the point that income averaging was illegal?"
"It may well be truthful, Mr Scott, but I wasn't permitted to be," Robert replied, adding he wasn't in a position to make any public admissions at the time.
"I kept my words very tight," Robert said.
"I'm in a hell of a position now where I know what the government has done but I can't communicate it. It's a dreadful position for a cabinet minister to be in."