Scott Morrison tells Robodebt inquiry he was given ‘very explicit advice’ scheme didn’t need legislation

Home Politics Scott Morrison tells Robodebt inquiry he was given ‘very explicit advice’ scheme didn’t need legislation
Scott Morrison tells Robodebt inquiry he was given ‘very explicit advice’ scheme didn’t need legislation

Former prime minister Scott Morrison has told a royal commission he was given “very explicit” advice no legislation was needed for the scheme which would ultimately become Robodebt. 

Mr Morrison has given evidence at public hearings in Brisbane in a session that became fiery at times, with an exasperated Commissioner Catherine Holmes at one point asking if he understood parliamentary privilege.

Mr Morrison was the minister for social services in 2015, and gave evidence that by late 2014 the Department of Human Services (DHS) had already done “extensive” work on the proposal.

The inquiry previously heard evidence that a need for “policy and legislative change” was included in a February 2015 executive minute to Mr Morrison, but a budget submission a short time later did not contain that phrase.

Senior Counsel Assisting Justin Greggery drew Mr Morrison’s attention to a paragraph in the executive minute which said DSS had advice some proposals in the minute “may have significant implications” for social security policy and legislation, and would need to be assessed.

“Do you recall what you understood to be communicated there?” Mr Greggery asked.

“It was not uncommon … in my experience of new policy proposals that departments would flag potential issues, and that’s what I simply noted that to be. That there would be issues that would need to be worked through here and brought to some finality in terms of the advice to government,” Mr Morrison said.

A later paragraph said DSS and the Department of Human Services (DHS) would continue working together to do that analysis.

“I was comfortable that those issues would then be worked through between DSS and DHS, informing a definitive position to put to government,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Greggery asked him if he had enquired further when a package of policy and legislative changes was not developed.

Greggery behind a desk and microphone, in front of seated onlookers, speaks
Senior Counsel Assisting Justin Greggery KC questioned Mr Morrison.(ABC News)

“What came back at the end of that process was a Cabinet submission from the department that said no legislation was required,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Morrison then referred to evidence given to the commission by several other witnesses, including Serena Wilson. 

“The department made very clear that at no time, from this time all the way through to the time of that advice from the Solicitor-General ultimately being provided to the government, had the department ever relayed any issue, despite multiple opportunities over multiple budget submissions over multiple years, that there was any legal question in the department’s mind,” he said.

“You’ve effectively made submissions on the evidence Mr Morrison, rather than giving evidence. But you seem very familiar with the exhibits, you’ve gone through everything have you?” Commissioner Holmes asked.

“Well, I take this commission very seriously, Commissioner,” Mr Morrison said.

Mr Greggery then pressed him again if he asked any question about why the package of policy and legislative changes wasn’t produced.

“No, and that was because I had confidence in my department,” Mr Morrison said.

“The clear advice given to me, and the advice therefore to the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet, was very explicit. There was no legislation required.”

Parliamentary privilege 

Mr Morrison’s legal representation had argued for a public interest immunity claim over Cabinet documents to be lifted, so documents attached to a written statement to the commission could be published and openly referred to. 

Lawyers held a closed hearing to discuss the matter last week.

Mr Morrison’s lawyer told the commission the ruling would not pose a practical problem.

But when he was asked at the start of his evidence if his statements were true and correct, Mr Morrison replied: “Well I can’t say that it’s complete, but I can say that the statement that’s redacted, the items that are not redacted are true. But I cannot say that redacted statement is a complete and comprehensive statement.”

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