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Stuart Robert admits to making false statements to support robodebt scheme

Ex-minister Stuart Robert explained why he publicly defended robodebt when he personally opposed it.

Ex-minister Stuart Robert explained why he publicly defended robodebt when he personally opposed it. Photo: AAP

Stuart Robert a former minister in the Morrison government, has admitted making false statements to support of the controversial robodebt scheme.

Giving evidence to the royal commission into the Coalition’s illegal welfare crackdown on Thursday, Mr Robert said he wasn’t permitted to tell the truth about the unlawfulness of robodebt a week after urging then-prime minister Scott Morrison to shut the program down.

“I had a massive personal misgiving, yes. But I’m still a cabinet minister,” the former services minister told the commission of his personal position while presiding over the automated debt-recovery program in 2019.

He said he provided information about the program’s viability during media interviews despite believing “it couldn’t possibly work”.

Angus Scott, counsel assisting the commission, asked Mr Robert: “So what you said there to your knowledge at the time was false.”?

To which Mr Robert replied: “My personal view, yes.”

Stuart Robert at the robodebt inquiry

Source: Twitter

Hundreds of thousands of Australians were sent debt notices under the robodebt scheme that unlawfully recovered more than $750 million using a method of income averaging.

Mr Robert said his department did not provide advice from the Australian government solicitor highlighting problems with the way debts were raised when he became minister in May 2019.

The first he heard of it was in a meeting with his department in July that year.

Mr Robert said after the meeting he “held a strong personal view” that the sole use of averaged income data from the tax office was insufficient to raise a debt.

Yet in media appearances following that meeting, Mr Robert continued to defend the scheme because it was still the government’s policy.

“If I’ve got a personal opinion, my next step is to seek the appropriate advice,” he said.

“Until such time as that arrives, I remain a cabinet minister, and I’m responsible for holding the cabinet line.”

Commissioner Catherine Holmes asked if that included misrepresenting policies to the Australian public.

Mr Robert said he “wouldn’t put it that way” because his personal opinion could be wrong until proven otherwise by the solicitor-general.

“I’ve got to leave room for the fact that I may well be wrong … I can’t just give my personal opinion, I have got to continue to uphold the government policy,” he said.

Former human services department secretary Renee Leon told the commission Mr Robert dismissed legal advice from the solicitor-general in 2019 that the scheme was unlawful.

When she presented the solicitor-general’s findings, Professor Leon recalled Mr Robert telling her: “Well, secretary, legal advice is just advice.”

But Mr Robert rejected this claim and said he presented the solicitor-general advice to the prime minister “within hours”.

Professor Leon told the commission she was forced to end the use of averaging to calculate debts because the government delayed making a decision to do so.

But Mr Robert said it was his department who had “sat on” the legal advice.

“I asked for the advice on the 4th of July, I wanted it, the department took months and months to get it to me and when they had it, they ostensibly sat on it for six weeks to work through what to do,” he said.

– with AAP

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