Former Human Services and Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has told the Royal Commission into Robodebt he “wasn’t permitted” to tell the public about his concerns about the Government’s illegal debt collection scheme despite “massive personal misgivings”. Robert, who is still a Member of Parliament, was eventually the Minister responsible for ending the scheme. He was questioned at the Royal Commission yesterday about events in the lead-up to this decision.
Robodebt was a system for collecting debts from welfare recipients from 2015 until 2019. It compared recipients’ reported fortnightly income with the income on their yearly tax returns. If the comparison suggested the recipient had been paid too much welfare, a debt notice was sent with no human oversight. The method was error-prone and a court deemed it illegal in 2019. However, legal concerns were raised as early as 2014, before the scheme began. The Royal Commission is seeking to understand why it operated for so long despite this.
The Royal Commission has questioned dozens of former Ministers and public servants to determine what they knew about Robodebt’s legal concerns and what they did with this information. (Public servants are non-political officials who advise and assist the government.) Despite numerous concerns, the debt collection method was only stopped in November 2019 after the Government agreed to a Federal Court direction that it was illegal. Robodebt was scrapped altogether in May 2020 and the Government agreed to repay debts.
Stuart Robert became Minister for Government Services (responsible for Robodebt) in May 2019. Robert says he quickly developed concerns about the scheme’s legitimacy but was not aware of any formal legal advice until November, when he says he immediately told the Prime Minister the scheme should be stopped and began the process to enact this.
Robert was questioned about whether he was made aware of legal concerns earlier than November, as some public servants have told the Royal Commission he was. Robert denied this and accused public servants of hiding this information for him for several weeks, which he said he was “flabbergasted” by. He said he had not been informed “in any way, shape or form” about existing damning legal advice in his first months as Minister, adding if he had “I would have walked into the Prime Minister’s office, put it down, and said ‘we need to stop this’.”
However, Robert said he quickly developed a personal view Robodebt was “flimsy”, which he called a “massive personal misgiving”. “I had a very strong view that the numbers don’t add up”, Robert said. However, Robert claimed he was unable to push to end the program without legal advice and felt pressure to keep delivering the program because it was saving the Government money. “I was getting a fair bit of pressure… that to meet the savings requirement this was needed,” he said.
The Commission questioned Robert about a series of media statements he made defending the program during the period where he says he had misgivings. Robert said it “may well be truthful” to suggest he told the media some things he suspected were inaccurate “but I wasn’t permitted to be [truthful]… I’m in a hell of a position [then] where I know what the government has done but I can’t communicate it,” he said. Robert suggested Ministers were required to defend the government’s policies “regardless of my personal sense of belief… just because I have a reservation does not mean I am going to go on [TV] and say the government’s policy is wrong.” When asked whether this meant Ministers were required to “misrepresent things to the Australian public”, Robert replied he had “watched government do extraordinary things”.