Scott Morrison has conceded his belief that robodebt was lawful was eventually proven wrong, but says his “faith” in his department stopped him from questioning the scheme’s legality at the outset.
The former prime minister’s role in the failed Centrelink debt recovery program was put under a microscope as he gave evidence to the royal commission into robodebt in a marathon hearing on Wednesday.
Mr Morrison, who is considered one of the architects of robodebt, was the social services minister when the policy was introduced in 2015 and prime minister when it was discontinued in 2019 after it was found to be unlawful.
On multiple occasions during Wednesday’s hearing, Commissioner Catherine Holmes directed Mr Morrison to stick to answering the questions put to him, before asking him, “Are you listening at all?”
“I do understand that you come from a background where rhetoric is important, but it is necessary to listen to the question and just answer it without extra detail; unnecessary detail, if you can,” Ms Holmes said at one point.
Robodebt was an automated method of calculating welfare recipients’ alleged debts by matching their reported pay with their supposed annual incomes, which were estimated by averaging data from the Australian Taxation Office.
The program falsely accused thousands of people of owing the government money and ended up costing the commonwealth nearly $1.8bn in written-off debts and compensation paid to victims who mounted a class-action lawsuit.
Mr Morrison told the commission he was never advised the robodebt scheme was unlawful before it was implemented.
The commission has previously heard Mr Morrison was advised that the robodebt scheme would require changes to the law to operate legally, but he pushed ahead with the program regardless.
The probe has also been told the Department of Social Services (DSS) advised in late 2014 that the robodebt proposal would require legislative change and wouldn’t hold up against a legal challenge otherwise.
Former human services minister Marise Payne told the commission on Tuesday she didn’t know why this advice was dropped from the policy proposal for robodebt by the time it went to the expenditure review committee before the 2015 federal budget.
Mr Morrison was shown an executive briefing, which he signed in February 2015, in which paragraphs saying the proposed welfare compliance crackdown needed legislative change had been highlighted.
He said he didn’t know who had highlighted these paragraphs or why.
Mr Morrison said by the time he took a final policy proposal to cabinet in March 2015, the DSS had changed its view and advised new legislation was not required.
He conceded there was a “fundamental change” between his department’s early advice and the final document he presented to cabinet.
Ms Holmes put it to Mr Morrison that – given he’d claimed to have a sound understanding of social security laws – he should have wanted to know why this advice had changed.
“I was satisfied that the department would have done their job,” Mr Morrison replied.
Mr Morrison said he believed income averaging was standard practice and had been used by the DSS since 1994.
He said someone had given him verbal advice supporting that belief, but he wasn’t able to recall the details of the conversation.
Ms Holmes said she was dubious about these particular claims.
The commission has been told the Department of Human Services – which was in charge of running robodebt – pressed ahead with the illegal program in part to meet its goal of recouping an estimated $1.2bn from Centrelink customers.
Mr Morrison said on Wednesday he had wanted to shore up the “integrity of the welfare system” but conceded the government had wanted to achieve balance budget and faced difficulties in passing legislation because there was a hostile senate in parliament at the time.
He was shown the transcript of a 2015 Sky News interview in which he boasted about the savings potential of a proposed welfare crackdown before robodebt existed.
Mr Morrison described himself as a “welfare cop” in that interview. He stood by the choice of words on Wednesday, saying: “That’s how I colloquially described it, often. I’m the son of a police officer.”
He was successful in his legal fight to release confidential cabinet documents, which had been suppressed, to support his own defence at the commission.
Government Services Minister Bill Shorten blasted Mr Morrison’s royal commission appearance as a “shocking trainwreck performance”, saying he had wasted an opportunity to take responsibility for the scheme and apologise.