Public servant ‘ashamed’ about robodebt

Three Robodebt collectors made nearly $11.6 million between them.

Three Robodebt collectors made nearly $11.6 million between them. Photo: TND

A senior public servant says she is ashamed about lacking the courage to speak up against the robodebt scheme despite knowing it was illegal.

An inquiry also heard former prime minister Scott Morrison – then social services minister – may not have been told about legal advice that should have stopped the program from going ahead.

Serena Wilson, former deputy secretary at the Department of Social Services, appeared before the robodebt royal commission on Wednesday.

Robodebt was initiated under the former Liberal-National government and falsely accused welfare recipients of owing money.

Automated debt notices were issued by a process called income averaging, which compared people’s reported income with tax office figures.

The commission is investigating how the scheme, which operated between 2015 and 2020, went ahead despite government departments knowing the debt calculation method was illegal.

Ms Wilson said deliberate, specific and comprehensive legal advice was provided to the Department of Human Services (DHS), now called Services Australia, before the program was rolled out.

But she believed this advice was not passed on to Mr Morrison because there was some “role confusion” between the two departments.

Ms Wilson described Mr Morrison’s ministerial style as fast-moving, energetic and “highly interactive in a verbal setting”.

She said her own understanding of the scheme was different to what was implemented by DHS.

“At the time, I thought we had come to an understanding … the essential elements of what became the robodebt scheme, and in particular the income smoothing or averaging, would not go ahead,” she said.

“In hindsight, I was clearly wrong.”

But when she realised in 2017 that income averaging – an unlawful calculation method – was being used to determine debts, she did not alert anyone.

Ms Wilson said she “lacked courage” and was “consumed with other responsibilities”.

“Human services were running and implementing the program and it was a difficult position (for me) to be in,” she said.

“Now, I’m ashamed and in hindsight I could have spoken up.”

The commission heard Ms Wilson’s notebooks that could have contained details of meetings about robodebt were destroyed when she retired.

“They were not official records, they were personal jottings that were mainly lists,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians were sent debt notices under the scheme, which recovered more than $750 million.

The commission is accepting submissions from people affected until February 2023, with a final report due by mid-April.


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