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“There was nothing to suggest to me… that it was unlawful”: Scott Morrison has testified at the ‘Robodebt’ Royal Commission

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As Social Services Minister in 2015, Morrison helped develop the Robodebt scheme.
"There was nothing to suggest to me... that it was unlawful": Scott Morrison has testified at the 'Robodebt' Royal Commission

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he received no advice that the ‘Robodebt’ collection scheme was illegal prior to it being rolled out across Australia.

As Social Services Minister in 2015, Morrison helped develop the Robodebt scheme. He also had a key role in the scheme’s delivery as Treasurer and Prime Minister.

He was called to the Robodebt Royal Commission to help gather evidence into the scheme, which has already been found to be against the law.

First, what was Robodebt?

Robodebt was an automated debt collection scheme targeted at welfare recipients. It was launched by the Coalition Government in 2016 and ended in 2019.

The scheme promised to retrieve $1.5 billion in taxpayer money from suspected welfare fraud, which would be done by identifying discrepancies in income reported to Centrelink, and what was assessed by the Australian Tax Office.

What went wrong?

The scheme wrongly asked some welfare recipients to return money to the Government.

About $1.73 billion was raised in unlawful debts from hundreds of thousands of people wrongly pursued for debts.

The scheme was shut down in 2019, with then-Prime Minister Morrison apologising to the Robodebt victims one year later.

What did we learn?

Morrison said he received no advice that legislation would need to be passed to make Robodebt lawful.

There was an initial document saying that new legislation was needed, but Morrison said this was withdrawn and replaced by a “more significant document” removing this advice.

When asked if he sought greater assurances given the change in advice, Morrison said he had “great confidence” in his officials, but conceded that this belief was proven wrong.

He said it was “inconceivable” the legal advice wasn’t elevated to him, adding that if it was, Robodebt wouldn’t have proceeded in its unlawful form.

Morrison said he first found out the Robodebt scheme was illegal in 2019, after receiving new legal advice.

On Tuesday, Coalition Senator Marise Payne – who was Human Services Minister when Robodebt was being developed – was asked at the Royal Commission why the initial legal advice was removed.

Payne said she didn’t know why it was removed, and didn’t “recall any formal advice” regarding legislative changes needed for the scheme.

The Royal Commission

A Royal Commission is a major, independent investigation usually called by the Federal Government. It investigates subjects considered to be of great significance to the country.

Once called, the Royal Commission has strong powers to talk to witnesses, request information and consult with experts.

It’s expected to present its findings to the Governor-General by April 2023.

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