Former Liberal human services minister Alan Tudge has been accused by the robo-debt royal commissioner of trying to intimidate welfare recipients through his close involvement in releasing details of people who complained about the scheme to the media.
The anonymised “cameos” of welfare recipients compiled for publication in newspaper were used to counter what Tudge labelled an “orchestrated campaign” in the press against the controversial welfare crackdown.
But the commissioner overseeing the high-profile inquiry into the scheme, Catherine Holmes, described it as a “strategy to intimidate people who complained about robo-debt”.
The royal commission on Wednesday was shown emails from Tudge to his staff in which he edited draft rebuttals relating to recipients quoted in the media, in a strategy that caused fierce backlash, but which he said he was comfortable was lawful.
“In hindsight … it should’ve come from the department to correct the record, rather than my office,” he told the commission.
Holmes said the strategy “made very clear if someone wanted to criticise Centrelink in public, they were taking a risk”. Tudge said that wasn’t his intent.
Counsel assisting the commission, Justin Greggery KC, said Tudge “remained closely involved in drafting the material that went to
Tudge replied, “I was closely involved in ensuring myself of the accuracy of what was going out.”
Tudge also said he knew the robo-debt scheme produced inaccurate results from early 2017 but issues around its legality were not obvious until years later.
Tudge, who in 2016 and 2017 was responsible for the welfare crackdown that illegally used income averaging to calculate debts, told the royal commission he would have expected to be warned about the program’s unlawfulness.
“It just had not crossed my mind until I read it in the newspaper, I think following the Federal Court case,” he said of the scheme’s legality.
A Federal Court judge found in 2019 that income averaging – the method used to calculate debts of thousands of vulnerable people – was unlawful, a conclusion that had already been reached in legal advice seen by both the departments of human services and social services several years before.
Tudge is the third former Coalition minister to be grilled over the automated debt recovery scheme after former human services minister Marise Payne and former prime minister Scott Morrison, who appeared due to his previous role as social services minister, faced the commission in December.
On Tuesday, Tudge’s former media adviser Rachelle Miller told the commission of how she planned to run stories about dole bludgers and welfare integrity in more sympathetic “right-wing” outlets to combat the “crisis in left-wing media”.
Tudge has been repeatedly reported as having threatened criminal action against welfare recipients who didn’t pay their debts during an interview in late 2016, but he told the commission he had been taken out of context as he was speaking about deliberate fraudsters.
“That annoyed me greatly,” he said, however, he acknowledged he could have emphasised the vast majority of welfare overpayments – 99.9 per cent – had no element of fraud.
The scheme used Tax Office annual income data and averaged it over 26 fortnights, presuming income was the same across each, and put the onus on welfare recipients to prove they didn’t owe the government money.
“I was aware the system through the data matching process had the potential to create inaccuracies and I was aware of that in January ,” he said.
“It had potential to not be a perfect surrogate of what their income was.”
The commission heard that top bureaucrats and lawyers within his department, including the former secretary Kathryn Campbell and chief legal counsel Annette Musolino, went to a legal conference in June 2017 at which eminent barrister Peter Hanks KC warned the program was potentially illegal.
Tudge said he would have expected to be notified by Campbell or other senior bureaucrats if they had learned of legal issues relating to the scheme, agreeing it would’ve been a failing within the department for him not to have been told.
“A failure for which you are responsible for as the minister,” Greggery put to him.
“I don’t know that you can say that,” Tudge replied.
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