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Stuart Robert’s gamble in the witness box is a risk for Scott Morrison

"I think my actions go to my state of mind," Stuart Robert told the robodebt royal commission.

"I think my actions go to my state of mind," Stuart Robert told the robodebt royal commission. Photo: AAP

Stuart Robert came out swinging on Thursday.

A lot was riding on his appearance at the royal commission into robodebt, for Mr Robert personally but also senior colleagues in the former Morrison government – but he seriously raised the stakes.

The inquiry into the unlawful scheme for recovering welfare overpayments – later shown to have been based on a mathematical error – has called several of his former cabinet colleagues who oversaw the policy between 2015 and 2019, including the man who calls him ‘Brother Stuey’, former PM Scott Morrison.

Previously the commission has inquired into how the policy disaster began. Mr Robert was the minister during the last days of the scheme and before it was finally declared unlawful by the Federal Court.

His account of how robodebt ended gets to the heart of whether the government was aware of growing allegations of cruelty and illegality or if, as one public servant in charge of the scheme said this week, robodebt had become a ‘fixation” for the Coalition and had been allowed to go on much too long.

Part of Stuart Robert's testimony to the royal commission

Source: Twitter

Bold testimony

In sometimes breathtaking evidence on Thursday, Mr Robert cast himself as the man who brought robodebt to a swift end after his conscience had been pricked by a report into the scheme.

His conscience sent him straight down a parliamentary corridor to burst into Mr Morrison’s office.

“Within hours I walked into the prime minister’s office to put an end to it,” he testified.

“I think my actions go to my state of mind.”

Mr Robert appeared unconcerned about staking his credibility against two of Canberra’s top public servants who worked closely with him as they oversaw the scheme – the chief lawyer and top bureaucrat at the human services department.

They say the former minister did not react at all urgently after warnings of illegality.

Mr Robert told the commission he had been so troubled by legal advice from the Solicitor-General received by him on November 9, 2019, that found robodebt’s basis in faulty maths made it illegal that he could not wait and strode into Mr Morrison’s office and plonked it on his desk.

“I said: ‘We need to stop this’,” he said of a fateful night in early November.

Mr Robert said he sought to have the issue dealt with by cabinet and soon found himself in a waiting room at Parliament with the then attorney-general Christian Porter, where they discussed the matter in view of several senior public servants.

“I put it to the attorney-general – I called him the attorney, not Christian – so it was very clear to everyone in the room …” Mr Robert recalled.

But the recollection of Professor Renee Leon, a distinguished lawyer and the public servant in charge of a government department as robodebt dwindled, contradicted Mr Robert’s evidence.

Professor Leon recalled receiving advice in February that the scheme was likely illegal and quoted directly from what she said were two briefings she gave to Mr Robert after his appointment in May, during which, she said, she suggested apologising.

“We absolutely will not be doing that. We will double down,” she recalled him replying. “Legal advice is just legal advice.”

Professor Leon testified that senior members of the Coalition appeared “very attached” to the scheme, but that she had been at a loss to explain why it had lasted for so long.

The former secretary of human services said she was forced out of the public service while another public servant more “responsive” to the government’s robodebt agenda was promoted.

Doubling down

Mr Robert said he had sought a legal opinion for weeks before he stormed into PM Morrison’s office and that Professor Leon, or others in the department allegedly delayed him from receiving it.

The Solicitor-General had first warned the government could soon start losing legal cases brought by robodebt victims in March. That was draft advice that the most senior lawyer in the social services department, chief counsel Timothy Ffrench, said he told Mr Robert about the opinion in July, long before he acted.

“He says that you said words to the effect to him that legal advice was really only an opinion until a court declares it law,” counsel assisting Angus Scott asked.

Mr Robert countered: “Again, I don’t recall that was discussed.

“I think [the law] makes it very clear that secretaries withholding information that is material from ministers is an offence …”

Other former ministers parried questions about robodebt’s lawfulness during their appearances before the inquiry.

But Mr Robert’s testimony about ending the scheme as soon as he got a copy of legal advice points mostly to a bigger question: Was everyone else in the cabinet unaware, as he was, for months that the government’s top lawyer believed it had been running an illegal debt collection scheme targeting the citizenry? Top lawyers had for years warned about robodebt’s dubious legal foundations.

Mr Robert did not seem daunted by the weight of probabilities in the witness box, but on a couple of occasions was picked up when he grew, if not combative, perhaps nostalgic for Perry Mason, and liberally called the Commissioner and counsel assisting as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’.

“I demonstrated my seriousness by walking straight into the prime minister’s office, but also I put it to you, sir …”

Commissioner Catherine Holmes told Mr Robert he did not put things to anyone; he was being questioned, before later correcting him on using ‘obtuse’ when he meant ‘extreme’.

A noble tradition

When Mr Robert was asked to explain public statements he had made while also – he had said – privately doubtful of robodebt, the Commissioner had more trouble containing her incredulity.

Asked why he had made public statements to journalists affirming his faith in the policy when he said he had privately been seeking advice about whether it could continue, Mr Robert replied: “As a dutiful cabinet minister, ma’am, that’s what we do.”

“Misrepresent things to the Australian public?” Ms Holmes said. “[Serving in cabinet] doesn’t mean you have to misrepresent the figures and say 99.2 per cent of cases produce an accurate debt.”

Mr Robert’s career has been despite explanations for behaviour that critics have sometimes called implausible.

He was forced out of cabinet after a review found he had not disclosed a financial interest in a mining company he visited and spoke to while assistant defence minister.

Shortly before his return to cabinet, his parents were revealed to have been unwittingly running a consulting company he founded and that continued to receive tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

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